Alora tucked the pouch away and considered Sar's scarlet cheeks, Gareth's contempuous grin, and the sly glances of the rest of the crowd. They always wanted what she had to offer but they never wanted to pay. But, in the end, they always did. Because they'd convinced themselves she could provide something they desperately had to have.
She glanced off towards the trees again, and hoped for another breeze. Heat usually didn't bother her but her internal temperature was now out of whack from the rogue thought. She felt a steady trickle of sweat start down her back. She shifted uncomfortably. This was a tale she could have scripted herself. Now the wait began. Sitting on Loki while he grazed, she waited until what was his name? Sar? untangled his tongue from his self-reproach and told her what he wanted. It looked to be a long wait. She watched him struggle, his face red and his hands clenched into fists.
"C'mon, c'mon."She thought, as her leathers began to darken with sweat. Loki snorted as she dropped his reins and lifted the mass of hair from her neck. Their fear was almost laughable. She suddenly pictured herself leaning forward and shouting "Boo!" into Sar's tortured face and watching them scatter. She shifted again, and ran a hand down Loki's sweated neck. It was so hot this year, hotter than any she could remember. The sun sprang over the horizon every morning with vengeful glee and the days didn't so much pass as drip by, like honey from a bee's hive.
After this was over with, maybe she'd head towards Leomedon. If she branched off the Trade road and took the Lowland trail she could go swimming at a pond she'd discovered a few years back. The water was like liquid ice, so cold your teeth hurt when you took a sip. She could hang her leathers up and hope for a breeze to drive out the smell she was now accumulating. She sighed wistfully.
Sar appeared to be in pain as he stood in front of her. His mouth opened and closed like a snagged trout. Alora looked at the other man who stood by Sar. He gazed back with a lazy smile. He expected something, what she wasn't sure. Maybe a shapeshift, fire from her fingertips, or smoke billowing from her nose and lightning bolts from her ass but, so far, judging from his expression, it was obvious he thought her a washout.
"Like I'd have the energy for any of that." She mused, and pulled up on her reins. Loki boared his head against the pressure then heaved a sigh. Grass bristled from his mouth like porcupine quills. A bad,bad habit. He picked one up every time she blinked. He liked to hold his breath when she tightened the cinch then let it out when she climbed aboard. He'd steal vegetables as he ambled through the marketplace. He loved to stand his ground as she tried to lift his hoof to be cleaned until the muscles in her arms stood out like rope. The list was endless. His main fault was he had so many little faults, irritating bugaboos that were only annoying if taken one at a time. Combined together they were like a good dose of poison ivy, enough to drive anyone mad.
"Tanje!" Sar blurted. His face was the color of an over ripe plum.
Alora hadn't been paying attention. The heat and haphazard track of her thoughts had made her dozy. Did he sneeze?
"We...I..request your power of Tanje. That's all."
Sar wondered if he'd asked for too much but for the love of Brede, ten gold pieces could have purchased weapons. Swords instead of pitchforks. Crossbows instead of scythes. Once again, he saw the laughing crowd, smelled his own vomit amidst the richness of new mown hay.
Gareth erupted into laughter. He simply could not hold it back any longer. The situation became even funnier by the fact he knew he shouldn't be laughing, oh no, this was serious business.
"It's debbil's business!" he thought gleefully, as he recalled a word from his childhood. It made him laugh all the harder. Through a glaze of tears he saw the color bleed from Sar's face. It left behind behind a shade that made Gareth think of day-old buttermilk. He looked at the Twiceborn (the head debbil!) and giggled. He wiped a hand hard across his mouth.
"You know, I've had devils and demon raisers and The Twiceborn shoved down my throat since I was this high."
Gareth dropped one hand, palm down, alongside his knee.
"Every morning my Pap told stories and I listened while shoving cold oatmeal in my mouth. Guess which one tasted better?"
He waited a moment then waved a languid hand. He hadn't really expected an answer.
"Anyhoo, go on, do whatever it is Sar has such faith in. Dance about naked, speak in tongues to the Night Hags, whatever, as I said, I enjoy a good show!" He smiled engagingly. This spectacle still had the potential to be the best freak show yet.
Sar listened to Gareth's banter, horrified. Every drop of saliva in his mouth disappeared and an icy spike rammed its way down his backbone. He quickly glanced at The Twiceborn and watched as a tiny muscle twitched along her jaw, making him think of a snake's rattle. Gareth's words echoed in Sar's head. A sliding noise behind him caused Sar to turn his head and he saw that his fierce band of barbarians had stepped prudently away, to leave ample room for the forth-coming curse,no doubt.. At this point, Sar found the thought oddly pleasant.
"He doesn't know what he's saying, he doesn't understand....please..." Sar stopped. There wasn't anything left to say. He felt sick in the heat.
Crawl over so she can pop my eyes out like peach pits? Gladly.
Accompany her to the UnderRealms and burn endlessly like a spitted pig? No problem. In fact, it's my pleasure. Just let this day end. But first, just five minutes with Gareth. I just need five.
The Twiceborn's voice was soft and sounded incredibly close to laughter. He looked up, and hated the cringing grin he felt stretch across his lips.
"You know, I respect your fear more then your groveling." She smiled awkwardly. Sar snatched a quick breath. He was afraid, anyone could see that, but her acknowledgement magnified it,and he felt like a bug under a looking glass. Once again he was back at the faire lying in the hay. The only difference now was he was caught there with his pants down.
"Bitch." He thought dully, as helpless anger pounded against his temples.
Alora flicked her eyes over Gareth. What a horse's ass. Every town and village had one. She believed their presence was a requirement according to bylaws in case people became too comfortable. Too complacent. Just when everything was fine, there they were, like a fly in your ale or a drought to kill your crops. Or a horse to break harness and give you a good kick to boot. Where ever she went they showed up and sooner or later this one, like all the others, would assume she'd traveled far and wide just to see him.
A steady breeze had kicked up, and the heat-sapped fingers of grass swayed in an exhausted dance. The shadows had grown longer.They stretched out after an all day slumber and she stretched as well, standing up in her stirrups and listening to the snap and pop of cramped tendons. She looked at Sar.
"I'll make my bed on the edge of the village. Come out to me when it's dark, understand?"
Sar nodded quickly, fascinated by the alluring quality of the ground beneath his shuffling feet. Aloras wondered if he was hoping it would open up and swallow him whole.
"I also need grain for my horse and fresh water."
She looked at Gareth who grinned back like a suitor at a harvest dance. "Can you help me out?"
She watched him as he rocked back on his heels and slid his hand leisurely downward for a quick adjustment. She stifled the urge to groan aloud.
Gareth couldn't quite believe his luck. Earlier that day he'd risen with the sun, his balls strung tight, and his nerve badly frayed. He'd sweated so hard he'd left an outline on the bed. He'd been worried about Lese (and more worried about how he was going to slip away unnoticed before the fighting began) but the possible opportunity with this young girl before him promised to erase any thoughts of battle. His grin widened,and became a little dopey around the edges. He could feel Sar's incredulous stare but it didn't matter.
Sar stared at Gareth with disbelief. The boy's cocky posture spoke to him in a tone he didn't like and he physically had to keep himself from begging for his money back.
"I have other men that would be more helpful then Gareth." Sar quickly volunteered. Which ones he didn't know, they were still rounded up well away from him like frightened sheep.
"No, he'll do." Alora replied wearily, knowing he wouldn't but he was the best of a poor lot. She'd reached a point in the day where stupidity would actually be a refreshing change from the palpable fear that had surrounded her since riding into town.
"Livery's this way," Gareth announced before he stepped off in front of her, head held high and hands nervously jammed in his pockets. His obvious show saddened her. It was a strange sadness that swept through her body and filled all the hollows and crevices made by too much time alone. She pressed the palms of her hands hard against her eyes, leaving the reins slack on Loki's neck.
"This damned heat." she thought irritably as Loki moved beneath her. "I should have taken it a little slower today." No, she really shouldn't have taken it at all and spent the day asleep by the pond off Lowland trail and avoided this mess altogether. Visions of icy, clear glass water shagged through her mind like a puckish imp and she resisted the urge to groan aloud.
Loki plodded along behind Gareth's swagger, his black velvety ears swiveling back and forth. He resembled an old dobbin at the plow but Alora kept her hands off the reins, and lett him lumber as he pleased. She looked around as his hooves stirred up the powdery dust of the road. She kept her expression carefully composed but inside it was as if she were being wrenched in two different directions at once. Shame swept through her at the familiar sight of people as they scurried from her path and averted their eyes from her face. At the same time, a wild fury worked her over, making her want to grab the nearest body and shake them while screaming, "Can't you see I'm not like that??"
The only thing wrong with that scenario was she was like that.
She snatched up the reins and Loki tossed his head in protest. Several women clustered by the Honor's Shop snatched the hands belonging to a group of children playing picket and drew them, screaming, into their abundant skirts. They guarded them with all the possessiveness of a she-bear with cubs. Alora ignored them. The towns were all the same. They were so much alike she sometimes had the eerie feeling that there was only one town and some great prankster moved it down the road a few steps ahead of her, people and all.
But they needed her. She knew this with the same deep, sure sense that told her the sun would come up tomorrow and all the tomorrows after. Because they needed to believe. They needed her to make their sins less wicked, their homes a little more cozy against the darkness. It reminded her of the story of the man who'd lost a hand and wailed and moaned until he met someone who'd lost both hands. The moral of it all was you might be a legless beggar on the streets but at least you weren't the Twiceborn was how the story went and if you did ask for her help... well...Brede was a forgiving god.
She smiled, a touch bitter. It amazed her how their god could be put in a box and so neatly wrapped up. The perfect gift for everyone.
Gareth's strut caught her eye and she frowned. She could read him like a book. He saw her as nothing more than a freak show. Something that needed to be kept caged and away from the light. If there was a story to be told about the devil's concubine or the eater of children, Gareth was the type of person who was right there to stoke that runaway fire and watch it burn a path.He was nothing but trouble.