The stables outside the Warden’s current headquarters weren’t exactly high quality. The rough structure seemed to have been thrown together with whatever materials were close at hand, with scraps of wood making up most of the walls and tightly knotted rope serving in the place of nails. Still, despite its slipshod appearance, the building was sturdy enough, and it already had that raw, almost physical scent that any regularly-used stable possessed. It would do.
Under other circumstances, the stable would most likely be packed with horses and other beasts of burden settling down for the night. However, considering Arndern’s current state, it didn’t surprise Thorfinn that the building was barely half full. In times of war, work didn’t stop just because the sun was down. In any case, the dwarf certainly wasn’t going to complain about having more room to work in, and didn’t waste any time leading Askeladd into the large central area. It was time for some long overdue cleaning.
First, the tack. His fingers moving along with practiced skill, Thorfinn undid the various knots and buckles that held the griffon’s gear together. Askeladd, meanwhile, held still patiently, moving only when doing so would help the dwarf take the tack off. The halter and reigns can off first, freeing up the beast’s beak and head, and were hung on a nearby peg. Next was the saddle, with all its straps and ties. Grunting a little, Thorfinn lifted the great chunk of leather, carried it a ways, and slung it over an open gate. “Don’t remember it being quite that heavy…” he muttered to himself, sparing a quick glance towards his arms and hands. After the saddle came Askeladd’s chain mail, as well as the various other straps and bits of gear that held everything together. They were quickly joined by Thorfinn’s own belongings. All of the equipment was quickly stored in the appropriate shelves, and though each piece would need to be tended to, they could afford to sit for a few minutes longer.
Without saying anything, the dwarf and griffon both exited the stable, walking silently but confidently over to a large trough of water. A few buckets and bars of soap lay nearby, and Thorfinn wasted no time in readying a few buckets of water. “Now hold still,” he lectured, hefting one of the containers, “or else the soap’ll get in your eyes. Again.” Though Askeladd growled a bit at that, he still obediently fell to his haunches, his front shoulders hunching forward and his eyes squeezing tightly shut.
Few animals look particularly dignified when they’re soaking wet, and griffons are no exception. Askeladd’s fur and feathers hung straight down with the weight of the water, making the once-majestic creature look like a half-drowned poodle, albeit a rather large one. Rivulets of soap and bubbles ran down the griffon’s lower, leonine half to splatter against the cobblestones below, and as if his miserable expression wasn’t enough, the low, pitiful whine in Asky’s throat made his feelings readily apparent.
Thorfinn, however, didn’t have much in the way of empathy. “Oh, hush,” he stated brusquely as he scrubbed a damp cloth across Askeladd’s body. “You’re starting to smell like blood and gunpowder. If you’d just rinse yourself off every now and then, we wouldn’t have to do this, but nooooo… Someone doesn’t like getting wet. Pansy.”
Askeladd flicked his tail in response, timing it so that some of the soapy residue would splash across Throfinn’s eyes. He was still soaking wet, mind, but Thorfinn’s spluttering and half-shouted curses made him feel a bit better.
After another few minutes of splashing and washing (during which Thorfinn got almost as clean as the griffon), the pair finally settled down. While Thorfinn mopped the water out of his hair and beard with a towel, Askeladd went with the much more refreshing, if messy, shake-dry technique. It did something to restore his former floofiness, making him look more like a griffon and less like a suffering lap dog, and also got Thorfinn and a few nearby Wardens wet again. Ha.
Once they were mostly dry, the two retreated back inside the stable. Askeladd settled down and began to preen; while his beak wasn’t much good when it came to cleaning his leonine half, the earlier bath had mostly cleaned out his fur and paws. All he really had to worry about was getting his feathers oiled up and set in an orderly fashion. Thorfinn, meanwhile, sat down by the tack and gear with a few rags and a few tins of metal and leather polish. Griffon and dwarf alike quickly settled back into a long-practiced routine, one that had been drilled into their minds and muscles after years of repetition. Alone in the stable, the pair worked in silence, each other’s presence the only company they needed.
At least, they worked in silence until Thorfinn finally spoke up.
“The hell are we doing here?”
A less observant individual would’ve missed the subtle pause in Askeladd’s cleaning, or the way the griffon slightly adjusted his head so that one golden eye peered at his companion. Thorfinn, however, didn’t even need to look up to know it had happened.
“I mean… We can fight. We can fight good, even. If this was just some matter of taking down that bastard Arvanskr down, then we’d be done in a week, tops. Point me at some enemy troops, and I can fight them no problem. But, but all this…”
The rag and halter in the dwarf’s hands fell to the ground, as Thorfinn wearily covered his eyes. “We went to the moon, for Ardor’s sake. We woke up a god, met one of the first dragons, and all this strange… stuff’s been happening to us. I can apparently summon an Eye-dolon, whatever the hell that is!
“This isn’t shit I know how to handle. I’ve never wanted anything like this, ever. And if Meren and Manari were telling the truth, then there’s only going to be more of it down the road. How the hell are we supposed to handle that, huh? They expect us to fight things that the gods themselves couldn’t handle!?”
Words started spilling from the dwarf’s throat more and more rapidly as panic steadily slipped into his voice. His hands started twitching, gesticulating at random as he continued to speak. “We… I can’t do this. I couldn’t handle the army; how can they expect me to do this!? There’s gotta be some mistake somewhere, someone else that should’ve been there, someone else instead of me. Askeladd, I’m scared, and-“
Thorfinn didn’t notice the griffon suddenly stand up, nor did he see Askeladd cross the distance between them with a single quick stride. What he did notice, however, was the mass of muscle and feathers suddenly covering his face, and the great weight of his companion’s head bending down across his shoulder. Forgetting dwarvish dignity and stoicism entirely, Thorfinn tried his best to return the hug, although his arms could barely reach halfway around the griffon’s shoulders.
The two of them simply sat there for a few minutes, feeling each other’s warmth and steady breathing. Askeladd may not have been able to speak, but his message got across all the same. “…I know, Asky, I know,” Thorfinn muttered eventually, his tone regaining its former steadiness. “I’ve got your back too. Not going anywhere without you. Never.”
Finally, the pair separated. The griffon returned to his cleaning, though he left the feathers across his chest as they were. The dwarf, after blowing his nose (and immediately cleaning the polish out of his nostrils), continued his work as well.
Regardless of what they wanted, fate had made it clear that their lives were going to get a hell of a lot more complicated. And there was no sense in facing that complication with poorly maintained equipment.