She stepped up beside him, as entranced with the fire as he was. The horse rumbled contentedly somewhere off in the dark.
"Can I go now? Please let me go." Sar asked.
"I'm done paying and now it's time to live with what I bought." He thought, and stared into the flames.
"You're not a prisoner, Sar. You can leave any time you want."
He looked at her and no longer saw a monster. Just a girl living in a world beyond his understanding. She terrified him, yet the way she stood by the fire-- hands out, weight cocked onto one leg, eyes sleepy--reminded him of his own daughters. Yes, he'd bought and paid but just maybe she'd done a little buying too. It was the closest he'd ever come to an understanding of her world.
He turned to go and paused to listen for the dogs. They were gone and had taken Gareth with them. Crickets chirred and owls echoed in the dark as the fire talked on in a warm, comforting voice. The night went on down its lazy summer track and Sar was amazed that Gareth could just disappear into it with such silky ease.
She'd gone and gotten a cloak from her saddlebags and was curled up by the fire. His eyes were drawn to a large, ragged hole in the coarse material.
"Can I give you some advice?"
Sar detected an uncertainty to her voice as though he had an option to refuse. It came to him that she might not know anymore about herself than he did.
"Sure. Is it about how I can be welcomed back as a conquering hero instead of the village idiot?"
She smiled sadly.
"Can't help you there." She snuggled down and wrapped the cloak a bit tighter. "Let me tell you something about the neat trick you paid for. People are seldom satisfied by what they buy from me."
She gazed at him for a long moment.
"You wanted to know something you weren't meant to know. So you paid for this knowledge with your coin, your friend, and your self-respect. What you don't understand is you pay me the coin but you also have to pay Bune. His price is far higher than mine. You should just let the days come as they will."
"Of the UnderRealms. You ask for what you want. Bune gives you what he feels you deserve."
He nodded and realized what she'd given him. The basic shuck was done. She had offered him the chance to understand it. It couldn't be changed but it could be understood. He turned away and headed back to Gandoura. The smoke of her camp fire caused a bitter taste in his mouth.
Leomedon. She never thought she'd be so glad to see the squalid little town. Loki, picking up on her excitement, arched his neck and pranced. He swished his tail grandly and caught her across her left arm right above her leather gauntlet. She winced and slapped his neck.
One day she'd own a horse she could simply just get on and ride without all the theatrics. She loved Loki but had a sneaking suspicion that the day would come when she would be doing something grand and mysterious in the eyes of the peasants and he'd give a quick buck and put her on her ass. That would certainly take the shine off her feared presence not to mention the seat of her pants.
She loosened the reins and he broke into a canter. The breeze on her face felt good. She'd left Gandoura early and spent a good part of the day at the pond, swimming and playing with Loki. She'd even managed to coax him into the water and give him a good scrubbing.
Washing out her clothes, brushing out Loki's mane and tail, and dozing in the sun had done wonders for her attitude. She was actually looking forward to spending time in Leomedon in spite of its jerkwater exterior.
Leomedon was one of the few towns that tolerated her. The little buildings that lined the clay street were numerous but had a pinched, down and out look to them. Thieves and swords-for-hire roamed the streets like ill-tempered dogs and all the town's inhabitants possessed a flat-eyed meanness that reminded Alora of a kicking horse waiting for someone to come into range.
They knew who she was and their fear of her was heightened. Her gods they understood. Or perhaps Brede hadn't stopped by for a pep talk lately. But either way, money was the true god of Leomedon. Once they discovered that hers spent as well as everyone elses' they left her alone.
Something was different today though. She slowed Loki to a walk to give people more time to get out of her way. There was an air of excitement on the main road. People skittered back and forth like harried ants. And they looked happy. Something had to be wrong. Even her loathesome presence wasn't enough to erase all the gap-toothed grins.
Loki sidestepped and almost unseated Alora as a small boy darted into his path. Alora only caught a glimpse of two wide green eyes ringed with dirt before the boy disappeared into the crowd, head down and arms pumping. She quickly regained her balance and tightened her reins. Where had all the people come from? The town was infested with them.
A frown twisted her features as Loki humped his back and snorted beneath her. Alora saw that he had almost become the victim of a vicious attack from a windblown leaf.
"Quit it!" She hissed, a little unnerved herself. A gleeful voice in her head piped up with: You know that day when you'll be dumped on your ass in front of an entire town? Well,it could be coming up sooner than you think!
She wrestled with the reins in an effort to straighten Loki out and move him down the road but he refused to turn his back on the leaf. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that the flow of people had slowed.
Several had stopped in their tracks to gape but she was flabbergasted to see hands folded in prayer.
"For what??" She thought feverishly as Loki shook his head in preparation for battle. "Praying I'll be killed by a horse frightened by a leaf??"
It was too much. She burst into laughter, not caring if Loki tossed her down or not. Her stomach ached and she raised a hand to wipe sudden tears from her eyes. Loki dropped his head and blew through his nostrils. The leaf refused to be intimidated. A dry breeze crawled by listlessly and blew more leaves onto the road
Alora loosened her grip on the reins and shook them vigorously. Loki conceded the battle when faced with such overwhelming odds and she felt him tuck his head in to give to the reins. She reeled in the excess leather. His hindquarters bunched and he backed up, too pigheaded to turn around.
She backed him past a dog-eared tent selling cloth and an abandoned shop with a placard dangling over the door claiming, "Sines Made Hear." Finally he gave in and turned around with a loud sigh. She ignored the curious stares of those riding by (many of them mounted on courageous, leaf-stomping donkeys) and rubbed Loki's neck.
"Honestly." She murmured. She decided to give him a little time to recover his moxie and settled back to look around Leomedon with a justifiably jaundiced eye. Not much had changed since her last trip through. Other than the amount of people on the roads.
Leomedon's main draw was its lack of law enforcement. Sure,there was a half-assed Guard but they were known more for their ability to swill ale then they were for keeping the peace. She pressed her heels into Loki's sides and he lurched forward. He'd all ready forgotten his harrowing escape.
She headed back out onto the crowded street and idlely watched people as they scattered out of her path. The Guard left her alone though, much like they did everyone else,and it was common knowledge if you were a business owner in Leomedon you kept your own house.