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Chapter 1: Kicking Mischief In the Tail


PART 2 of 2

[ Return to the first part of Sword-Song: Chapter 1 ]


"Oh, well enough." Unfortunately. If he were out dead somewhere,

bleeding and serving up the crows a fine dinner, it'd be quite dandy

by me.


Dalan was silent for awhile. Again. Then, "You know that horse the

Prince just got from Imperial Faln? The big, black charger?"


I perked up instantly. Indeed I did know of the horse. Dorn was his

name and calling it a charger was a travesty; it was not a

muscle-bound oaf of a horse at all. Crossed with hunters, coursers,

chargers, palfreys, and through generations of blue bloodlines, the

Prince's latest addition to the royal stables was perfection unto



"Dorn?" I chirped. "Oh aye, I know of him."


"He's a spirited one. Fire all through him. Won't take the bit and

doesn't like a heavy rider, but the Prince is working with him slowly.

Never raises a whip against the beast, and believe me, that horse is

Sherdon's very own fury when he's displeased with his trainers." Dalan

paused, held the halter to the light, squinted, and then returned to

work. "But the Prince never lashes leather against the beast. It would

do nothing but serve to break the animal, ruin a fine horse. The

Prince knows that. Knows that you can't beat something into submission

without destroying something valuable."


To tell the truth, my mind had begun to wander just the slightest, and

then it snapped to, because I realized he was telling me this for a

reason. More or less, he was saying it was all right to hide out in

the stables, and that I could rely on him not to tattle to Hebthar. I

guess big black bruised eyes could have that effect on warm-blooded



"You're a lot wiser than the bulk of people I know," I said to him,

rising and dusting off my breeches. "Good night, Horsemaster."


Dalan grunted in response and I disappeared into the darkness of the

stable, walking down the stables, greeted by familiar whinnies and

snorts of dozing horses. I came to the hay loft and took the rungs two

at a time. It wasn't Imperial Faln, but then, as I said earlier, I

just wanted a place to rest my head for the night and forget my



I wasn't terribly bright at fifteen-coming-up-on-sixteen, and I knew

that. But I still had enough brains to know that heading off to my

room was a bad idea this morning. It was more a matter of flicking the

blades of straw off of me and heading out to sneak into the kitchen

for a bite or three. Seelata, the mistress of the kitchen and first

cook to the Prince, had seen enough of my face so that her plump

features didn't flush a tomato red when I showed up. On occasion, I

helped with peeling carrots, potatoes, plant-like things that had no

legs with which to run away from me, but like most people, I liked to

avoid the work. I just sort of ingratiated myself with her as I had

with Dalan, more or less, to get by and get what I needed. Despite her

naturally pleasant personality and inclination to love to death

anything that ate her dishes with a passion, Seelata didn't like me as

much. Something to do with breeches and eating too much and snatching

one pie too many and likening her to a sow ready for the butcher.

Insignificant things like that.


I strolled into the kitchens, intent on soothing my ravenous hunger,

and minding my disheveled appearance not in the least. The kitchen

drudges gaped for a moment, and then turned back to their work, paying

me no further heed. They were well accustomed to my oddly-timed

comings and goings and were growing a lot more accustomed to my

oddness in general. It wasn't often that nobility-kindly disregard the

fact that I just barely slide under the wire on that-spoke humanely

with anyone of the lower classes, especially servants. Or even speak

the way I did, slang and friendliness and youthful foolishness all

rolled into my voice. Besides, they had been hearing the rumors about

this little half-sister to the Captain of the Guard, who for years had

played with swords, forgivable enough in a child, but at fifteen? It

was scandalous!


I was quite proud of that.


In fact, a lot about me was scandalous. Particularly the amount of

food I ate. Can we all say "pig?" The kitchen-mistress, Seelata, had

dubbed me "The Kitchen Raider" as of late, because I, like the

Raiders, took what I wanted without giving a Sherdon. I, being an

arrogant toadstool of fifteen-going-on-sixteen, reveled in that

honored epithet. It gave me plenty of pleasure to associate myself

with the Raiders, who were soundly defeating my brother and his guard

at every encounter.


Humming to myself, I pored over cooling loaves of bread and dishes of

fruit. Daintily, I reached for a raisin loaf, before Seelata came

huffing in.


"Cheerika, don't you dare!" she blustered, swinging a wooden spoon.


I snatched back my hand, narrowly avoiding a wicked blow. Silently, I

thanked the gods for youth, good reflexes, and Seelata's great age.


"Good morning," I sang cheerfully. Charm sometimes worked with Seelata

and she was usually very lenient. Not to say I was a very charming

person-only when I was hungry. Once again, good reflexes saved me as I

ducked under her half-hearted blow. With not a little bit of

self-conceit, I praised myself for my nimbleness. "Don't you go

sweetening me, Cheerika!" she scolded, waddling after me with her

merrily plump figure. "And don't you snatch a morsel! The Captain was

very upset when he came in earlier this morning..."


Oh, aye. My brother. Hmm. Well, I knew the chances were pretty slim

that he had woken up dead this morning. The gods were so unfair



"...and he left very strict orders that you were not to eat until some

nonsense about meeting him in his quarters was cleared up."


I frowned. Apparently I wasn't going to eat until I settled matters

with Hebthar. Very well, then. I was off to see him in his quarters.

You see, unlike marriage, starvation wasn't in the distant future. It

was here, it was now, it was thinking that the wooden spoon Seelata

was holding would taste great with a little pepper and salt.


"Okay," I said, shrugging. "I'll take care of it, Seelata. Good



I spun nimbly and started to walk out, swiping a raisin bread loaf

before swiftly exiting.


"Cheerika!" came Seelata's appalled voice, fading as I dashed out.

Let's all give thanks to the gods that sows don't run very fast.

Especially not ones ready for butchering.


I tore off a corner of the loaf and popped it into my mouth, chewing

thoughtfully as I walked a slow and meandering way across the

flagstones. I headed for one of my old haunts, a courtyard so old, its

flagstones were a soft, worn grey that seemed to slough away beneath

my scuffed boots. It was tucked away in a corner of the perimeter

walls, where an ancient oak loomed darkly over the crumbling stone and

a stream flowed, entering through a specifically carved channel in the

wall. I was always glad to see this place, stream still flowing, tree

still glowering tiredly at the castlefolk. It was a weak spot, you

see. The tree was too close to the wall; it was easy to get around

Castle Faln's primary defense. The stream entered under the wall,

where an iron grate was supposed to cage out intruders. Years ago,

however, the iron had rusted through and washed away, and as a younger

miscreant, I used to swim under and through the grate to make trouble

outside castle walls.


Everyday that I came here, I expected to see the tree fallen and the

stream again barred. I figured that my brother, oaf that he was, would

eventually notice this spot. Luckily, and may the gods be blessed, he

hadn't. Which was another reason why I liked to deposit my self in the

oak's shadows.




I froze, then brightened. The voice that called was neither

reprimanding nor angry, and only one person in all of the Falnish

Territories who used such a tone with me.


I turned, smiled. "Good morning, Kren."


"Good morning, Cheerika," he gasped, being winded from the length he

ran to catch me. Wordlessly, I broke the loaf into halves and shoved

one into his hands. He mumbled some thanks and wolfed the food down

with the kind of perpetual hunger only a teen-aged boy possesses. We

walked the courtyard, fair Falnish Kren and darker half-Falnish

Cheerika, and still I waited, marking his excitement and wondering at

its source.


Finally: "I've been moved to the higher class, Cheerika! The

swordmaster said I'm better than my friends! I'm learning new moves

and everything now!"


I smiled brightly at him, sincerely happy. Kren, son of a Guard, had

already had his life and dream plotted out for him. To excel, by

Daquar, that meant all the Territories to him!


"That's great, Kren!" I exclaimed, slapping him on the shoulder. Then,

pausing, I rubbed my chin in mock-contemplation and said, "Wait, let

me guess... You want to practice these new moves, right? And, oh,

let's see, whomever would be foolish enough to take on a fine and

skilled warrior like yourself? Fools, I say fools, are there are fools

about? Show yourselves now!"


Kren socked me in the shoulder and I promptly socked him back. He

backed away, studied me, solemnly shoved the improbably large corner

of bread into his mouth, and then leapt at me. Shrieking, I dropped my

remaining crust and battered my friend about the head. Rough and

tumble games were often the rule around Kren and myself, and often a

scandal for anyone with any shred of decorum. Aye, that was me, little

old scandalous Cheerika. My brother would never be able to marry me

off at this rate.


The thought stopped me cold and Kren threw in a cheap shot that

properly eked a scowl from my face. Brows drawn together, I continued

to scowl at him while rubbing my just-abused tummy.


"You're lucky breakfast isn't all over you," I huffed.


He smiled. No, he lolled, like some long-limbed, gangly dog. "So," he

said, cheerfully ignoring my dark expression, "When can you practice?"


"You just can't wait to tan my hide, can you?" I said, allowing the

scowl to drop and a smile to emerge. "Well, all right, say midday



"Midday meal?" he sputtered. Dismally, he asked, "When do we eat?"


"I'll get you something," I promised, feeling around for my money

pouch. "We'll eat between breaks, okay?"


"Why not now?" he asked, infused with excitement. I guess I couldn't

blame him; I would've been excited, too, if I were training for the

Guard and had been bumped up a class for my skill. Heaven knew I

wished I were. Then, by the gods, I'd show those Raiders just what

kind of blades Castle Faln could turn out!


"I've got to have a little chat with my brother," I said, climbing to

my feet and dusting off the posterior of my breeches.


Kren seemed to deflate at that. "You're in trouble, again, aren't



I laughed, and grinning at him, said, "Since when am I not in trouble

with him?"


"I really wish you wouldn't anger him like that," Kren grumbled, that

worrisome nature of his cropping up again. "One day you're going to

kick Mischief too hard in the tail, and Hebthar'll be sure to kick

your tail harder than Sherdon."


"Bah," I scoffed, extending my hand to my friend and helping him up.

"Dead brides don't bring much into the family coffers, hmm? Gaunt

ones, of course, are another matter," I muttered, patting my stomach.


"Just stop kicking, Cheerika, just stop, please?"


I really hated it when Kren did that. That worrying thing. It wasn't

so much that it annoyed me, more like it cast a dark shadow on me. It

was like whispers in the dark, whispers of something ill coming my

way. I didn't like that.


"See you here at midday meal, agreed?" I said, smiling broadly and

blatantly ignoring his words.


His features still flattened by worry, he nodded. "Agreed."


"And don't forget to bring me a practice blade!" I called, turning and

heading to face my brother. We were going to have to discuss this

little kitchen affair, Hebthar and I. If he wanted to chase me out of

my room, fine. If he wanted to beat me senseless, not great but

acceptable. If he wanted me to run around in a dress, atrocious but

compromisable. Now, if you wanted to deprive me of Seelata's raisin

loaves, he had another thing coming!


Once again, imaginary readers, I would like you to pause and note that

I was an idiot. An idiot ruled by her stomach. Do remember to tack

that on. That's quite important, that stomach bit. And raisin loaves,

good gods, you've never tasted anything like Seelata's raisin loaves.

Although her puddings weren't anything to be scoffed at either...


I digress. I do that a lot. Live with it.


I headed back to my room for a quick bath and a clean change of

clothes. Sherdon knows I wasn't going to let him see me in this shape,

disheveled, rumpled, and straw-strewn just because he couldn't control

his temper and I couldn't learn to shut my mouth.


There's a message in there, I can feel it.


I didn't bother knocking; it wasn't a habit my brother or I had ever

learned to pick up in dealing with one another. I stormed in, strides

quick and sure, and there was a habit that we did share. It was never

a matter of calmly walking in to see the other, or dropping by for the

sheer Sherdon of saying hello and chatting a while. No, it was always

storming in, me shooting out like a lightning bolt, him following like

the lumbering idiot he was, or this case, with me storming in like the

hot-headed dimwit, of which I kindly take pains to remind you all.

Sometimes I came out hea-first, brain striking opposite wall, or

sometimes it was posterior-first, landing and-you wouldn't believe it

if you hadn't seen it-bouncing a few feet on underlying floor.

Sometimes it was the old lightning bolt-lumbering idiot routine. It

didn't matter which was the encounters proceeded, because they were

always the same: they were not fun.


"Brother," I said, coloring the word with the same mettle that curled

my lips in a displeased half-smirk.


He looked up from his parchment and seemed to suddenly catch fire. It

always amazed me that he never grew bored with the same routine. It

also always amazed me that he was perpetually reading parchments when

I entered. It wasn't as if he had a lot of friends who wrote to him.

Roaring, bestial, ugly men often have that problem.


"Cheerika," he snarled, and every little hair on the back of my neck

stood up. Good. Very good. That was far more intimidating that usual.

If I didn't know better, I'd say he'd been practicing.


"Did you have a pleasant breakfast?" he asked.


Sarcastic son-of-Sherdon.


I smiled at him. It was not a nice smile. It was the type of smile

where your teeth are gritted and "I WANT TO EAT YOUR HEART ON A STICK"

is screaming out from behind that false cheerfulness.


"I don't like you," I said pleasantly, still smiling. "You smell." I

paused. "You're not very pretty, either."


Oh aye, let's spell out "maturity" here. Of course, since we weren't

dealing with a mature person, a little lapse of self-possession was



My brother smiled. It was not a very nice smile, either. I don't think

I shall tell you what it was screaming out, in case you wanted to

spend the next few nights sleeping peacefully and dreaming pleasant



"You are going to do what I say," he said stiffly.


I snorted. "Oh, of course. Just whatever did you have in mind?"


He set the parchment down on the table, his hands clenching themselves

as the paper slid to the wood. I don't think he was happy with me.


"You will again take up your lessons with the Lady Jali. You will

again take up your Northernspeak lessons. You will wear a dress, like

any sane woman would. You will accompany me to court, you will

accompany me when I dine with the royal family. You will obey. You

will not be seen at the stables anymore, and above all, YOU WILL NOT



A few errant strands of my hair flew back from my face from the breath

of his shouted words. I smiled at him, blinked, leaned forward onto

the table, and tapped his parchment irreverently with an errant



"Your breath reeks, too."


There were problems with my mouth. Big problems. Painful problems.

Problems that had built my endurance and sprinting abilities.


"Cheerika," he crooned through clenched teeth, "Would you like a

broken arm?"


Gauging from his red face and gnashed yellow-um, white-teeth, I didn't

think he was very far from carrying out that little threat. Except he

usually pounced first and threatened later. This whole situation

really wasn't looking so good. Really.


"What kind of bride would that make?" I said, grinning maliciously.

"Aside from a broken-armed on? Not at all appealing, I can assure



Hebthar nearly jumped up and seized my throat. I knew this move quite

well-ah, what a teacher experience is. But he restrained himself, and

although it signaled a victory for me, showed that I had hit some

nerve, all it did was worry me. Hebthar didn't restrain himself. Not

with me.


"I don't think you understand the position you're in."


Oh, no, I did. As always, it was a bad one. And going from bad to

worse was long since our routine. I didn't think anything he could

throw at me was going to scare me.




Go ahead. It's all right, let it out. Call me an idiot.


I never saw my brother move so fast before. He actually came over the

table, spilling parchments and quills and little wells of black, black

ink. When I next blinked, I found myself slammed up against the wall,

my feet well off the floor, and my throat protesting as his hands

closed around my throat.


"You don't understand," he growled, face an inch from mine, his breath

rolling onto mine. "If you don't marry Sanri, you have no life. You

are no good to me."


Well, so much for familial love, wouldn't you say?


Maybe he should have told me back then. I guess it wouldn't have made

much difference, except maybe I might have helped him. Maybe. You see,

years down the road, I discovered why my brother needed me married to

Sanri. Needed. With all his failures in protecting Castle Faln against

the Raiders, he was quickly becoming unpopular with the royal family.

A marriage between the princeling and myself would have made a

stepping-stone to mending that unhealthy rift. But it was still more

than greying ties between the royal family and the Captain of the

Guard, it was the incredible debts Hebthar had accrued. There was only

so much he could take from the royal treasury, only so much he claim

for his Guard. He had used it, all, some of it wisely, in fitting his

guards with armor and weapons, and some of it unwisely, in buying

himself extravagant indulgences. There was no more for him to take

from the royal treasury, and so he had used his own money, and later

credit by his standing and name, to purchase soldiers and weapons from

other holdings in the Falnish Territories. A union with royalty, the

bride-price they would have paid, would have been enough to cover his

costs. My brother Hebthar was a man in trouble, and this did nothing

for his state of mind, which was never that stable to begin with. He

was a desperate man, and had hung his last hope on marrying me off. I

don't think either of us truly realized how much trouble we were

really swimming in.


What was it Kren had said about kicking Sherdon's tail too hard?


I didn't remember too well at that moment, and I must admit, I very

rarely think well when slammed up against a wall and having the breath

squeezed out of me. But, Kicking, that stuck to the mind. So, I did,

landing a hard one into my brother's stomach, with force enough to

disengage his stranglehold and send him careening away a few feet (and

force enough to try to send me through the wall. Wasn't I lucky there

was about two feet of some very hard stone there to break my fall?).

The advantages of being beat up very often is that you get good at

taking a beating. So, when I hit the ground, I was up in a second and

darting out the door and down the halls. Every little bone, muscle,

and bruised piece of skin started to scream and whine about pain, and

I had to wave them off with a "Not now, later, Sherdon damn it!" as I

streaked down a flight of stairs, around a corner, and down yet

another hall until I was out in a courtyard, startling a pair of

kissing servants in a dark corner. Overhead, I heard a loud roar, my

brother the silver-tongued, beginning a rage.


"It's not a safe night to sleep at home," I sighed to myself. "Do you

enjoy this, oh gods?" I asked, face scrunched up in bitterness. "I

mean, come on, just how many times do you have to have poor Cheerika

beat up before you get tired of it? I mean, it gets a little old for

you, now doesn't it?"


But, I guess not. Because this sort of thing happened often. And was

going to happen a lot more in the not-so-distant future.






Days later, maybe six or seven, the only brilliant thing I could think

of was: Sherdon. My brother had set out his little yappy

second-in-command to look for me, and a sly fellow Frin was, at that.

It was almost a challenge. I suppose, however, that I should have

thanked my gracious gods that Hebthar was too concerned with my public

image to set a whole regiment out to look for me. Gossip didn't help

in the marriage marketing business.


Still, I really did get tired of constantly looking over my shoulder,

dashing from shadow to shadow, and worst of the worst, of starving. An

empty tummy just isn't anything to laugh about. Then, neither was

having the daylights beat out of me.


Still, I was getting along all right. Sleeping in the stables could be

a lot worse, but hay was relatively warm and soft, never mind it had

those Sherdon-cursed coarse edges that sometimes jabbed right through

your clothing and got you right there in the. Oh, ahem. Speaking of

which, getting clothing wasn't a problem either. I simply grabbed one

of the maids and threatened to her with something vague and menacing

and that seemed to do the trick. If Hebthar were in the room, waiting

to ambush me, she would have to lie her way around him-probably coming

to mend or wash my clothes-or face me. Since Hebthar didn't know her

name and her sleeping quarters, which I had made clear I did, she

didn't have a lot of choice as to which side she was throwing her



It did bother me that I was resorting to Hebthar's methods to get what

I needed. It bothered me quite a bit. I didn't want to be like my

brother, I didn't want people to tread fearfully around me, to wear

silence like a stifling shroud because they thought the slightest

misspoken word might touch off my temper. I didn't want to be Sherdon



Well, these things happen when one is at war with brothers. I

threatened her, and that was that. I claimed a victory with Seelata

and the kitchens, however. There I merely stole. It wasn't easy, mind

you, so stop your gaping. Seelata is mighty wicked with that wooden

spoon. Particularly when I incited her with remarks about fat sows

ripe for butchering. Which was every morning. And noon. And evening.

All right, I had a big mouth, don't nag me about it.


The point was I was getting along just fine living like a fugitive. I

even managed to keep a steady schedule with Kren. You could not have

told me in those moments of swordplay that there could ever be more

joy to life than this. Hours and hours we spent, throwing our weight

behind our wooden swords, clashing and breaking, cajoling and



"Cheerika," Kren pushed out as we locked at crossguards.


"Aye, Kren," I managed in a falsely sweet voice.


"I've something to tell you."


We broke, began to circle one another. "Do share, Daquar bless," I

mocked, feinting, missing, and retreating to fend off his riposte.


"The swordmaster has decided to start us on steel this sennight."


I froze in a moment of surprise. Steel? Steel swords?


Kren lunged, taking advantage of my consternation. But he was still

gangly, being a boy and spurting out with limbs in all directions. I

caught his awkward self and threw him back with force enough to toss

him to the cobblestones.


"Really, you've got to do something about your balance, Kren," I said,

clucking with my tongue. "I'm always throwing you to the cobblestones

these days."


"Shut up," he said without heat. I lowered my mock sword and extended

a hand to help him up. He accepted wordlessly, brushed off the back of

his breeches, and said, "Well?"


"Well? Why, I'm certain I am. You?"


You had to see this look. It was something you wanted a quick-handed

artist around to witness. The disappointment, the aggravation, the

curl of lip that inexplicably told you that you were the greatest

idiot the world has ever spawned.


I smiled sweetly back at him. Being obtuse could be fun.


"Well, are you going to practice with me with a real sword?"


I looked at him for a moment, blinked, and then burst into laughter.

Would I? "Would I? Oh Kren, I'd kill you if you hadn't asked!"


He smiled at me, the only smile I had seen this entire session of

swordplay. Kren was always so grim while fighting, as if he thought he

could stare me down in defeat or something. I had news for him; it was

about as effective as that little fake a right feint and go for my

head business.


"Do you have a sword? A real sword?" he asked me.


A fond smile took my lips and curled them. "Oh, aye, I've a real

sword. You just be sure to have yours!"


Kren shot me a look that told me he thought I was a liar. "Where in

Sherdon did you get a sword? Did you swipe one of your brother's?"


"Kveln. Kren, it's Kveln."


There was a gasp of comprehension and an understanding nod. You see,

Kveln was my father's sword, left to my half brother after his death

(a terrible hunting party accident. Truly ignoble). My brother, with

twelve or thirteen of his own gold-chased, jewel-encrusted blades,

wanted nothing to do with undecorative, plain Northern blue-steel

blade who bore the name Kveln. So off it went to the armory, to be

rescued by a little dark-haired loud-mouthed idiot with a little

Northern blood. I guess it had something to do with things I

remembered from my parents, my dark Northern mother and my Falnish

father who had gone to the Northe. I remember, vaguely, my mother's

tales about Northern magic and Northern gods. Sometimes I wish she

hadn't died while I was so young. Sometimes I wish both she and the

younger sister she almost birthed had not left me alone at six. And

sometimes, although it was so long ago, I remember the language she

shared with me, the harsh-sounding words that were so numerous in

meaning and connotation, that Northernspeak was the poet's language,

harshness notwithstanding. And from my father, who sat nights

polishing Kveln and deigning to speak to his dark little daughter, so

colored like his favorite wife, he told me about Northern swords and

how each was forged with Daquar's-the God of War-blessing and named.

Each Northern blade took on a life with that name, and anything living

fights too hard against dying. Something bent on living was exactly

what you wanted fighting on your side.


That was all I had of them, really. One blue-hued, Northern sword of

plain design and snatches of Northernspeak to augment the Trader I

spoke now, along with every other person in the Falnish Territories.

In part, that was the reason why Hebthar wanted me to resume my

Northernspeak lessons, so I could be a little more than just like

every other person in the Territories. Exoticness was a great

marketing asset.


"I remember that sword of yours," Kren brayed. He never spoke its

Northern name. One, it was pretty difficult for someone who only spoke

Traderspeak. Two, he didn't believe in Northern magic and

Daquar-touched blades. He was just too Falnish, in some respects. "So,

when do we fight?"


I wanted to chose a time when it was least likely that either Frin or

Hebthar would be sneaking around, or too many other people, for that

matter. What first came to mind was sunset, when everyone was rushing

off for evening meals or battening down the fort against the chilly

autumn nights and the possibility of Raiders.


"Tomorrow, at sunset," I announced, with a slight smile. I braced

myself for Kren's protest and was surprised when none came.


"Agreed. Can you get your sword by then?"


Oh. Sherdon. I'd forgotten about retrieving Kveln, swathed in oil

clothes and hidden beneath my pallet.


"Aye, I'll have it." And oh please, please oh please, dear gods,

don't, just don't play out your comedy of the caught and

brother-bludgeoned Cheerika. Just please.




"Hmm?" My brows were drawn in concern.


"Don't kick Sherdon in the tail, okay?"


A wry and weak smile broke across my face. "No, I won't. Anyway, you

just wait for tomorrow. If any tail's going to be kicked, it's yours!"


He socked me in the shoulder. So I bit him. He hit me again and backed

away quickly. I chased him and kicked him. And then we went off,

laughing, playing roughly, two friends in a happy obliviousness.