The men moved away from her horse , and turned away from her dark eyes with a fear she'd come to know well. She rode light and tense in the saddle. She trusted no one. Especially those claiming to need her help. Loki jangled his bit, champing the silver, as it tightened in his mouth. He halted and pawed the ground so Alora could study the men, her black eyes impatient.
She sighed inwardly and waited for someone to step forward and speak. It didn't matter what anyone said, terror was more contagious than lung rot, sweeping from man to man like a brush fire and robbing their voices of sound. A light breeze rustled through the nearby hemlocks, a delicate scythe sweeping dust and the scent of heatherblossoms before it. She tilted her face, feeling its whisper through her dark hair.
For a brief moment Alora forgot who she was and thought of galloping across the grasses, wind in her face as she knelt low over Loki's sweated withers. No where to be, no where to go, the responsibilities of her Clan resting on shoulders other than her own and when the sun set, the night was just the night. A moment of togetherness and not something alive, something that needed to be worked and tended....
"You're the Twiceborn?"
The man had the reluctant look of losing the coin toss as to who should be the speaker. Her eyes swept over him, and took in the thick leathers, and the war helmet crooked beneath a heavily muscled arm. His face wore the hang-dog look of exhaustion.
"Yes. I'm the Twiceborn. Word reached me through Wulfgar you needed me. My services aren't free."
The man studied her through hollowed eyes. She was nothing like what he'd expected, the tales he'd heard told ingrained on his memory like the passage of a well-loved book. He found her slight build unsettling. He'd pictured her more like a warrior woman built like Garth the blacksmith. Or a wild,screaming crone with hair as white as the moon. Legends consisted mostly of strong brew and fanciful tongues but there had to be more than this....girl. His daughters were tucked firmly away in his root cellar and this little slip could well have joined them, a thought he didn't find comforting in the least.
"I'm Sar and this is my a...army." The quick stutter brought a childish flush to his face. "Tomorrow we defend the people of Gandoura against those pillaging bastards in Lese."
Alora cocked one leathered leg around the horn of her saddle, her expression one of barely concealed boredom and watched, amused, as Sar fell silent. Loki reached out an inquisitive nose and lipped the tightly clutched war helmet. Sar jumped and began to speak again. His words tumbled out feverishly.
"We can't afford much, we're not rich. Many of my men lack weapons and mounts. We're not warriors. We're husbands and fathers."
She swept her black eyes over the motley crew huddled behind him and remained silent.
"Surely you can find some compassion..even you..to help me and my men." Sar plunged on as one word tumbled over the next. "We have 20 pieces of silver. I k..know it's not much but there isn't much left, they've taken everything and its all..."
Alora held up her hand. It was an old story, trotted out and dipped in desperation. She knew the words by heart.
" Spare me the sad tale. Let's set our dealings straight: I have no pity for you. Ten gold pieces. If you don't have this, I'll ride on."
The matter of fact tone of her voice caused Sar's face to flush a deep purple. Her nonchalance burned his skin like a brand. She simply didn't care. What was happening to Gandoura meant no more to her than the recent spate of rain they'd had or the rising cost of grain. He stared at her as she lanquidly raised her arms over her head in an exaggerated stretch.
Sar looked down. His men had tried to warn him but he wouldn't listen. He couldn't ride against Lese without knowing if he would live or die and the woman before him knew the answer. She carried it snug and warm in a cocoon wrapped around her black heart. For a price.
Sar knew her history and had hoped for compassion but his friends had warned him and warned him well. She was Death mounted and, if the whispered stories were true, quick enough and eager enough to introduce all of them to her own particular hell. Shame rose up in him. The one thing greater then the concern for his daughters, his lost crops and all his talk of honor was fear. He knew he'd pay her price.
"Afraid, Sar?" The half-whisper tickled the hairs on his neck. "Afraid if my news to you is bad, you're lost? Maybe afraid the sickness in the pit of your stomach could actually get worse by what I might see?"
While he'd been looking down at the ground in embarrassment, she'd taken the opportunity to lean forward in her saddle and put her face just inches from his own and he staggered back,swallowing a scream. She'd locked eyes with him for a moment and he'd felt a scabrous nail tap the windows of his soul. A half smile curved her lips but this was a game he didn't want to play.
"I'll pay your price but not because I'm afraid. I need to guarantee the safety of my men." The voice was weak,mewling, and it took a moment for him to recognize it as his own. " She knows I'm lying" He thought and his face reddened even more. Goosebumps rippled his flesh like dirty white pebbles.
"I don't relish bloodshed and its more than just my blood that will be spilled. That's why I have to know."
He looked up at her as she silently stroked her horse's neck.
"It's okay,Sar. I'm scared sometimes too." She said with a tight smile.
In that moment he saw her, saw her true face, the one behind the facade. The one hidden away with a fear it was too fragile for everyday use. It was a face of innocence yet one guarded well by a jackal of a wild nature and he felt a strange pity twist his heart. He blinked and the moment was gone.
A sharp tip dug into his throat, dimpling the pasty flesh, and he realized,with a start, that she'd pulled her sword and leveled it against his skin. The tip held a contained fire, hot and cold, and Sar knew, inexplicably, that a breath more of pressure would be like a thousand wasps finding a home in his flesh. But what truly frightened him was he hadn't seen her unsheathe the blade. Judging by the frightened silence around him, he knew his men hadn't seen it either.
"Tell your men to get back from my horse."
She didn't look at the curious group; she had eyes only for Sar. He waved an anxious hand and they fell back reluctantly. A bitter chuckle almost escaped through his dry lips as he read their expressions. No one had been brave enough to speak up when she rode into town but, just like an accident, they were more than happy to stand by and watch. In an instant he knew Gandoura was lost, regardless of the Twiceborn. Never mind all the displayed rage and talk of honor and honor lost. The town was as good as gone. He looked at the men, wondering how in the name of Brede he'd come from farming to being some sort of ragtag warlord leading a bunch that reminded him more of weasels in a hen house than swordsmen. His war helmet suddenly took on the weight of stone.
"They're like me." He thought,and ran a tired hand through his thinning hair. "Farmers too tired to run anymore. Think courage is getting yourself killed." On closer study he was reminded of children playing dress-up and his sadly amused eyes took in the homemade armor and the weapons consisting of anything heavy and convenient. He was horrified to feel his eyes brim with tears.
"And where do I lead them? And why must it be me?
The thoughts slammed home and filled him with a lonesome, mournful sense of something far beyond any control he could muster. He realized he couldn't do it. He was afraid.
One of the men in the group stepped forward and Sar was so surprised he wondered briefly if his thoughts had been desperate enough to give themselves sound. He recognized the man immediately, a young kid called Gareth who owned a small croft near the edge of town. Sar had forgotten more about farming than the boy had ever learned but at that moment he didn't care because his shame piped up and said, "Here's somebody to take my place!"
Sar watched him approach with a critical eye. At least he'd had the sense not to wrap himself in heavy, sweat-producing material like some of the others in the belief it would help deflect a sword blow. They'd pass out from the heat long before reaching Lese, their brains simmering in their swaddled heads like a dinner stew. Wild, braying laughter clawed at Sar's throat and he held it back only through supreme effort.
"Children playing dress-up, nothing but children playing dress-up..." raced nastily around the confines of his head.
Sar was amazed when Gareth stopped in front of him, dug through his pockets , then held out some coins.
"Here,take this." Sar noticed a tiny amused smile on Gareth's face as the boy glanced up at The Twiceborn. " I was going to use it for crops and a new plow but you know how much I like a good show."
That crazy laughter bubbled against the back of Sar's tongue and he pursed his lips in a thin, solitary line. "He called what she does a show" he thought. Each word paused inside his head and gave the unspoken sentence an extra dollop of fear.
Sar grew up being comforted by a sense of order in the world. His world consisted of getting up in the morning and going to bed at night. In between, you worked your land, fed and nurtured the black soil until it spit up enough to keep you and your family alive another winter. Sar knew all of this by heart. When the crops sprouted , you thanked Brede for taking time out from battling scourge like the girl before him and allowing you your next breath to do it all over again. These were things he knew to be true and honest, the things that governed his world and those around him. Yes,he knew there were demons and demon raisers but as long as the overall balance didn't get knocked akilter, that was okay, maybe even necessary, in some sense far beyond his hard-working mentality.
Now his world had been snatched up and given a good shake by no one else but himself and his fear. A part of his mind opened like a door rusted long shut and asked what if?
What if he'd been wrong to want her power to fight Lese?
What if she were as powerful as some said, able to snatch his soul in the time it took to shift from one foot to the next?
What if Gareth's arrogance angered her enough to prove to all of Gandoura that Brede was nothing more than a glib jokester? Someone adept at sleight-of-hand but when push came to shove folded and slunk out of town like a dog with its tail tight against its belly?
All of this raced through his mind in the time it took to swallow around the rock in his throat and the laughter inside his body spread, chuckling through his bones and driving him to a strange, jittering edge.
Gareth grinned at Sar's slumped posture and jangled the coins in his hand. He looked up at the slight girl on the dark horse and his grin widened, a special grin he pulled out and polished up for the festivals and tried out on only the prettiest of girls. Gareth was a big festival goer. Dressed up in a clean tunic and breeches a bit too tight for everyday wear, he walked the twists and turns, eating spiced meat, and catching all the girls' eyes. Gareth had actually caught quite a bit more than the eyes of Sar's daughters. He'd rolled each of them in the hay and swore his love and devotion to each one afterwards. Occasionally he'd bolted out of bed in the middle of the night after a vivid nightmare about the two of them comparing notes.
His hand stole down, leashed to his thoughts, and gave his crotch a quick shift and squeeze, a motion as familiar to him as breathing. The only thing better than Gareth's many conquests at the festivals were the freaks brought for display. They were pulled in from far and wide, grunting and gibbering in their handmade cages and mounted on carts that creaked ominously under their mad weight. He'd seen a three-armed slave(that one hadn't been very good; the arm was just a tiny knob of flesh with two stubby fingers attached).
There had once been a woman on display who was only three feet high and had done an odd little dance, stripping off her clothes and tossing them to the drunken crowd. Gareth had been amazed to see that everything was in correct proportion to her height and he still regretted not shelling out the one gold piece that would have bought her for the night. But the best of all had been a woman with a tiny head, complete with a shock of black hair and flat, dead eyes, attached to the skin beneath her left breast. He'd seen that one four times.
This freak though, the one called The Twiceborn, the feaster of souls, the demon whore, might well be the best yet. Right now though, Gareth was a little disappointed. He'd expected a stallion blowing fire, carrying a hideous crone with a laugh mad enough to cause children to hide in their mother's skirts. Not this girl clad in leathers a little worn around the edges and riding a stallion who'd developed the annoying vice of stealing grass whenever the reins were slack.
Still, she was beautiful in an uneasy way. Something so perfect you knew it had to be wrong. Only shadows could sculpt something so flawless. Perfection was a sin in the eyes of Brede and Gareth shivered, a delightful ripple, as his eyes drank in her black, careless hair and wild, wild eyes.
Sar snatched the coins from Gareth's hand and scowled at the dreamy expression on the boy's face. Four gold pieces. Sar dug into his own tattered pockets and came up with six more. Six gold pieces that belonged to his daughters that he'd never meant to spend. He held them out.
"Here's your money." He jerked his head angrily at Gareth. "Don't pay him any mind, his losses have made him bitter. He didn't mean what he said about a show. Don't curse us because he's a fool."
At first Sar didn't think she was going to take the coins. That the men standing behind him and looking like bedraggled scarecrows had forced her to feel some compassion, an emotion he sensed she'd treat like an affliction. "What if she refuses to help?" The voice inside his head piped up and his heart took a crazy leap into his throat.
He'd never thought of that. He watched as she sheathed her sword then reached her hand out for the coin. His fingers brushed her palm. A giddy relief swept through him, brought on by the age-old decree of the merchant: Money had exchanged hands; therefore an agreement had been reached. This was a decree he believed in wholeheartedly as though it were chiseled in stone. Demon-bred she might be, but to welsh on a bargain after money had exchanged hands? She wouldn't dare.
The coins disappeared into a small pouch pulled from somewhere in her tunic and Sar noticed it was indecently plump. A scowl etched his haggard features. "She doesn't need our money." He thought, bewildered and angry. "She took it because she could."
He felt like the world's biggest fool. The feeling reminded him of the time he'd gone to the faire and drank way too much of a hard cider as crisp and sharp as a winter wind. He'd been walking (staggering) along, his daughters in tow, when a huckster had caught his bleary eyes. The man was standing by what seemed to be a simple contraption: a rope ladder with six steps lying horizontal to the ground. It raised up at a slight angle, one end of the heavy ropes staked to the ground and the other ends tied to two small posts. A bed of hay lay underneath. mere inches it seemed from the top rung and Sar laughed as the huckster called out, "A gold piece to the man who can climb to the top! A copper a try!"
It was deceptively simple and he'd looked around,amazed no one was rising to the challenge. Against his daughters' advice he'd climbed aboard and was flung down into the hay as quick as a rider on a canyon-bred bronc. But he refused to give up. Over and over until a crowd gathered and his pockets were empty. The final insult came when he threw up in the hay. The crowd roared and he'd looked at them, blinking roundly. His daughters had stared at him then quickly looked away.
The quick turn of their heads, like synchronized puppets, had sobered him more than all the falls from the ladder. He'd swore then that he'd never do anything again to cause them to turn away like that and now here he was, paying for another fast shuffle. The only difference this time around was he was using someone else's money.
He stared hard at the ground, seeing every pebble, and knew if he got through this without bursting into girlish tears, it would be a miracle.