Sacred Duty, Bleeding Heart

Chapter 5

Newly enamoured as they were they did not get much done that day. They just took care of the animals and other than that, spent their time touching, kissing, laughing at one or another’s silliness without a reason and in general relishing the thrill of the new and undiscovered.

That evening, Fili sat in front of the hearth after having had a cold and rather short bath at the well and was untangling his hair; and Katla knelt down beside him after having tidied up his shirt and boots which he had carelessly shed beside his cot.
“Would you like me to help you?” She held out a comb to him.
“Thank you,” Fili replied and was just about to take the comb when their eyes met. “I’d like that very much.” With that he dropped his hand again and shifted his position, turning his back to her.

Katla hesitated for a moment, then she moved closer and began working on his still moist and unruly mane. Working with her fingers she first picked out the larger knots and tangles, a task that took quite some time, before using the comb. Yet whenever she encountered a knot that the comb wouldn’t clear at once she put the comb down and removed said knot with her fingers, all the while humming under her breath.

“Are you enjoying yourself?,” Fili asked after a while, his voice low but sounding audibly amused.
“Why, yes,” Katla gave back. “Your hair feels lovely.”
He chuckled under his breath. “Now you are making me feel embarrassed.”
Katla ran all ten fingers through his hair, from roots to tips. “It would have been a real shame to have cut it off.”
Fili’s shoulder’s stiffened. “What?”

“When they brought you here, your friends.” She continued to run the comb through his hair despite there being no more knots to be combed out. “Your hair was a tangled, dirty mess matted with dirt and twigs and drenched with drying blood, as was your beard. I thought it was hopeless, even after two of your companions had washed it.”
“I spent the whole night picking knots and twigs and bits of leaves and dirt out.”
“The whole night?” Fili craned his neck to look at her over his shoulder. “I... well... thank you.”
Katla smiled at him. “It gave me something to do while I sat with you through the most critical hours after your injury. I didn’t mind it.”

“And you are not even aware of what you did for me,” Fili said in a low voice after leaning back to rest his head against her shoulder. “What that means to me. For a dwarf to lose his hair and beard like that... it’s... it is hard to explain, but it amounts to a loss of… pride and self-esteem.” He cleared his throat. “To put it mildly.”

“I realized something like it when I mentioned to your companions that I needed help with washing your hair.” She toyed with a strand of his hair, her forehead furrowed. “They were very uncomfortable when I said that if we wait too long the problem could only be solved by a pair of shears.”
Fili shuddered. “Well, I add it to the list of things I owe you.”
Katla chuckled under her breath. “You owe me nothing. I did what needed to be done.”
He turned around and knelt to face her. “But I do,” he said earnestly. “I do!”
“No.” Katla shook her head vigorously. “I am a healer; saving people’s lives is what I do! I can’t have everyone around me being indebted simply because I am what I am!”

They stared at each other for a while, until Katla closed her eyes and spoke again, shoulders hunched. “It is this dwarfish thing about being in debt that I don’t understand, is it?”
Fili took a few moments to answer. “Come here,” he said softly and pulled her into an embrace. “I won’t have you feel bad about things you cannot help. And if you want, then I’ll try to explain.”
“I would like that very much,” Katla whispered, relaxing into his embrace.

“A debt is a serious business,” Fili began. “And it hardly matters if you owe someone a small favour or your life. It’s the principle that matters most. As a warrior, owing someone your life is of little consequence because you fight with these dwarves and have their back, and they have yours. You constantly save each other’s lives, so there is... I guess you could say it is an unwritten code that between warriors, a life owed is a live saved, and the other way round.” He took a deep breath and stared at nothing for a moment. “But being in debt is being honour-bound. A man who cannot pay his debts has no honour. Now, I know that most humans who ever learned about it think it is atrocious, but we have a lot of written laws and codices about the value of everything so a debt can always be repaid in coin if it cannot be repaid in kind.”
“Even a life?”
“Even a life. Limbs, too. Insults, adultery, you name it.”
“A limb? So if someone hacks off...”
“No,” Fili gently interrupted her. “Not that simple. Simply hacking off someone’s limb or killing someone is a crime and is treated that way. But if there had been an accident, for example...”
“I think I understand,” Katla said thoughtfully. “If you cannot repay any kind of debt, you pay the price the laws state, and everyone is satisfied?”
“Yes,” was Fili’s answer. “Well, mostly, but that is... complicated,” he then added.

Katla was silent for a while. “But how do your people treat their healers?” She finally asked. “Everyone would be indebted to them without being able to repay them. Are they very rich, then?”
“Now that is even more complicated.” Fili cleared his throat. “When you become a healer, there is a certain ritual in which you foreswear all debts concerning your trade. But I cannot explain this any better, because I simply don’t know.”

Her face set tight and her lips pressed together, Katla freed herself from Fili’s embrace and stared into the fire. “I think I made a grave mistake,” she whispered.
Fili took one of her hands in his. “Tell me.”
Katla cleared her throat. “When your friends were about to leave, your leader approached me and wanted to pay me for my services. But I insisted I did not want to be paid as coins have no value out here. It is true, and I did not want any payment, I still don’t want it, but I left him in a bad position, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” Fili gave back. “Yes, but you had no way of knowing.”
“I didn’t, but...” She shook her head. “It still worries me.”

“And that honours you.” He pulled her close again. “And now you should stop worrying so much. You weren’t finished with my hair, were you?”
Her head against his shoulder, Katla chuckled. “In actual fact, I was.” Then she leaned back again. “But I could braid it for you, if you like.”
Fili gave her a look full of longing. “I would like that very much.”
“Well... how would you like it?”
Fili parted his hair just above the ear. “One braid hanging in front of the ear, and the other, right behind it.”

Smiling to herself, Katla did as he asked and parted his hair very meticulously with her comb to ensure the braids would be even. She paused here and got up to find herself a ball of yarn and after tearing off a few pieces she settled down beside Fili again. While her fingers worked she watched his face, blushing slightly when he smiled at her while looking at her from the corner of his eyes.

Since there was no mirror he could only feel the braids but assured her that it felt just right, and certainly better than he could have done by himself. Then he picked up the comb and began to work at his beard.
Katla simply watched him; yet as he cast a casual glance at her his hands suddenly froze for a second before he hesitatingly continued what he was doing.

Lowering her eyes, Katla picked at her skirt and swallowed. “Should I leave you alone to that?”
“What?” Fili emitted a slightly shaky chuckle. “No. No, don’t you dare stop admiring me.”
At that, Katla had to chuckle as well. “Well, would you like me to braid your beard as well? I am sure I remember what it looked like.”

This time, Fili froze completely and stared straight ahead for a long while that stretched into an uncomfortable silence before he cleared his throat.
Katla began kneading her fingers. “I did it again, didn’t I? I said something really wrong just now.”
“What?” Fili shook his head as if she had knocked him out of a daydream. “No... not... as such. Just...”
“Just what?”

Fili looked up and met her eyes, and this time it was him who displayed a slight reddening of the cheeks. “It’s just that... uh...” He ran a hand through his hair and scratched the back of his neck. “That... I mean that is not what...” he broke off again.
“Fili,” Katla sounded slightly panicked. “What did I just say?”
“Nothing bad!” Fili hurried to say. “Nothing bad, but... something really... I mean...” He chuckled again, but this time it sounded more nervous than amused.
“A real dwarf would never have said that, would she?”
“Well...” He coughed. “Uh... no.”
“Please... what...”Katla’s voice was shrill and she was close to tears.

Fili stared at her for a few moments longer. “Today it’s sometimes used as... as a proposal of marriage, but...”Then he took a deep breath. “It’s actually an ancient ritual reserved for the wedding night,” he finally blurted out.
Katla stared at him open-mouthed, her face turning stark crimson.
Smiling softly, Fili placed a finger under her chin and closed her mouth. “You couldn’t have known. It is something very intimate. It is... well... if I told my friends I had lain with my woman last night and made her scream my name until she was hoarse, they would smile and praise my lovemaking skills. But if I happened to accidentally mention that she braided my beard afterwards they all would be terribly embarrassed and would not know where to look.”

“I’m sorry,” Katla whispered in a husky voice.
“No.” Fili leaned forward and touched her forehead with his. “No, don’t be. I said it’s nothing bad.”
“But a real dwarf woman would never have said it.”
“That is true.” Fili’s voice was very low and deep. “No woman has ever even touched my beard. Not that there is much to touch what with my age and all...” He trailed off into a whisper. “I often wondered what it would be like, you know.”

Their lips almost touched and Katla had her eyes closed by now.

“I often wondered, but I never felt the urge to get that intimate with any of the women I... knew.”
Katla shuddered as the breath of his whispered words grazed the skin of her lips.
Fili slowly moved his lips past hers. “But since you asked,” he breathed into her ear. “The answer is yes. I am the first man you have lain with. Be the first woman to...” He swallowed hard. “...braid my beard.”

He then moved his lips across her cheek again and kissed her, a soft and passionate touching of lips, before he leaned back to watch her with heavy-lidded eyes. His chest was heaving when Katla hesitatingly took the comb out of his unresisting fingers.

She hesitated for a heartbeat or two before leaning forward and cautiously running her fingers through the thickest part of Fili’s beard, just under his chin. His eyelids fluttered shut and his lips parted slightly with a soft intake of breath.

A small smile spread on Katla’s face as she drew her fingers back again, increasing the pressure ever so slightly. She could feel him swallow hard.
Then she took another deep breath and adjusted the grip on the comb. There was an audible intake of breath with every stroke of the comb, and with her smile widening, Katla continued to comb through his beard even long after she had smoothed it out to perfection.

Leaning back to assess her work she casually brushed a few strands of hair from his forehead which caused him to smile, yet without opening his eyes. Then she reached up towards the mantelpiece where the two beads had been lying ever since she had removed them in the first night after his arrival.

“How do these work?” she whispered.
Fili slowly opened his eyes and their foreheads touched while they leaned over her hands and he showed her how to fasten them to the tip of a braid. He did not meet her eyes.

Katla moved closer yet and his chest moved faster when she began to comb out his moustache, and by the time she put down the comb there was a sheen of moisture clinging to his temples. With slow, measured moves she sifted her fingers through the right half of his moustache before parting it into three even strands. As she began to braid, however, his breathing picked up speed, and by the time she had clasped the small bead around the tip, he had a small, incredulous smile on his lips. His eyes, however, were still squeezed shut.

She then proceeded with the other side of his moustache, and the moment she had clasped the bead around it he grabbed her shoulders and pushed her down. Yet after a long and very passionate kiss he buried his face into her shoulder and whispered: “Let me hold you.”

Katla closed her arms around him and turned her head towards him, burying her face into his hair.
They remained like this until they fell asleep that night without even undressing any further.

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