In Gareth's opinion, the walk to the Livery wasn't long enough. (The way they looked at her!) His shoulders stiffened a little more and his smile widened. She was nothing more than a good-looking piece of tail with one finger dipped into the UnderRealms. Just enough to give the black arts a wink and a nudge. That was all the peasants needed, especially ones as stupid as Sar. They thought they could buy courage with ten gold pieces.
Gareth paused in front of the Livery, his job done, and watched her dismount. She slapped dust from her leathers and he laughed at the incongruity of it all. The fate of Gandoura rested on the shoulders of a girl whose head barely reached up to his chin and who was now involved in the senseless frippery of untangling her mass of long black curls with her fingers. For the love of Brede, combine the right amount of ale and superstition and anyone could be a legend.
He tapped her shoulder politely, and hoped he could hold back his laughter long enough to ask her something he was genuinely curious about. She straightened and gave him a wary look.
"I was just wanting to know what it's like." Gareth gestured towards the watching townspeople. " Having that kind of power over people."
Alora snorted in disgust. A pained smile crossed her face.
"You think fear is power?" She asked.
"Sure it is." He replied."It controls people doesn't it? It's like being a god." How could she not know that?
She frowned, silent. He really thought that was all it took to be a god? Alora knew gods. Gods that walked wastelands of fire with their eyes sewn shut by fine strands of sinew. Gods that breathed life into shadows. Gods that walked in the still night and learned madness from the cold fire of the stars. The sadness she'd felt earlier came back. It slid darkly over her skin like oil, and she laughed. The sound of her voice struck an uneasy chord in Gareth.
"Fear's nothing." She answered shakily. She stood on her tiptoes and slipped the reins over Loki's head. She handed them to Gareth.
"Someday you people will realize that if you're unafraid all your demons will disappear."
Gareth gaped at her. It wasn't the answer he'd expected. He looked at her and suddenly realized two things: she thought she was like everyone else and, because of what she'd stated in such a plain and simple manner, there was no way she could be. She had power. A power made more frightening by her easy denial of it and he grinned, not knowing what else to do.
Alora ignored Gareth's dazed expression and gave Loki a final pat.
"Hold him for me. And don't dig through my saddlebags. I'll know if you do.
Of course that was like asking the wind not to blow or the sun not to set. Alora knew he could no more keep his hands out of her possessions then he could, well, keep them from between his legs. It was an obvious habit of his she'd tried not to notice. The smug measure of her character by him made her dislike him even more. People who believed fear to be power were nothing more than slaves suddenly handed the thick end of the whip.
"At least he's not cringing like a whipped puppy." She thought and ran a hand through her dark hair. "All he has to do is hold Loki. He can manage that. Can't he?" She knew it probably wouldn't take very long before she found out, one way or the other.
The Livery was small, pocket-sized for a town off from the Trade road and was the discovery of every castaway cat in Gandoura. It wasn't like Pinchem (Ol' Pinchem he was called at the Blackmantle tavern, a name driven home with a quick elbow to the ribs and a drunken leer) went through the streets to gather them up. They just found him. They'd wind their way unerringly through the streets to perch outside the Livery as surely as rats hearing the siren call of the Piper. He'd open the doors to start up business for the day and that would be the end of it. They would march in and become his.
They lived on or inside the hay bales, and scratched their itches on the shelves. Or sharpened their claws on the beams and cleaned their toes on the floor beneath the lazy ebb and flow of afternoon sunbeams.They were everywhere. Furry, yowling obstacles for Pinchem to step on no matter how careful he might be. And you could never be too careful. Like now. He'd been forking hay, his twisted hands and tight back singing with every motion, and out of the corner of one ale-reddened eye he'd seen a kitten go flying, nothing but fluff and eyeballs. It landed in the growing pile below. The climb down the creaky ladder to the stalls was almost too much trouble for his dried out bones but he went, cursing every step.His breath whistled harshly through his lips.
Where did they all come from? Well, most of them had been made right there in the Livery. When Pinchem blew out his lantern at night in his tiny room over the stables, the yowls and screams below were enough to rival any whore at the Blackmantle. He bent over and dug the tiny kitten out of the hay.
It was no bigger than the palm of his calloused hand and it looked at him, blinking. Another little tiger with mittens. Somewhere, a midst all the horses and 'stags, was a tiger tom with bollocks the size of his clenched fist and having more fun then Pinchem had ever dreamed of in his randier days.
He stroked the kitten,and watched it arch and purr. "Little moggie kit." He crooned gruffly, resigned to his bizarre fate. He went faithfully to church but he no longer asked Brede to forgive him for drinking and pinching all the bottoms of the serving wenches when he was well into his cups. No, he'd gladly burn in the UnderRealms for those transgressions if Brede would only send someone to take all the damned cats off his hands.
He'd thought the yahoos from Lese might be the answer and he'd waited breathlessly, his beady eyes bright. Waited for that one thrown torch. When it happened, the horses and 'stags would come first of course and then the cats but well, he couldn't be expected to save them all,could he? Especially if he sucked in a few good lungfuls of smoke. But it hadn't happened. The torch wasn't thrown, the stable still stood, the cats still screwed, and Pinchem continued to pray.
The sluggish grunt of the Livery doors being opened interrupted his run of thoughts and he glanced up, still holding the kitten. He watched the girl step inside and look around. He grinned, and revealed teeth as yellow as the hay beneath his feet. Another habit he was fond of was attempting to size people up like he did horses (though he wasn't nearly as enamored of this habit as he was his namesake) and what he saw before him was clearly a thoroughbred. Clean-limbed, well-muscled and still a filly with dark eyes and a tilt to her head that marked her unbroken. His grin widened and he stroked the kitten zealously, eliciting a raspy meow. She'd be an unusually sweet ride, bucking some at first but in the end, she'd settle down quite nicely, yes indeed.
One bony hand snatched the cap from his head, a ridiculous thing that resembled a pancake and bore the scuffs and scrapes of countless hooves and orphaned kitten litters. He dashed forward, ignoring his creaking limbs.
" I'm Pinchem, I run this place.Can I help ya with somethin' missy?"
Alora smiled at the old man holding the kitten. She reached out to run a finger over the kitten's head as it stared at her, bug-eyed. Its tiny fur bristled and it spat, full of flash and fire. Pinchem thumped it on the head with a stern finger.
"A little peppery but a good mouser." His eyes glowed with a desperation she found unsettling.
"I just need..."
"You need a horse??"
Pinchem thought selling a horse would be almost as good as getting rid of a cat. Business had been slow but horses knew nothing about lean times. Strapped or not, they ate just as much and he had some he'd been feeding for a bit too long. He swept a hand towards a row of stalls on his left. The cap gave the motion a grand flourish.
"I have some fine draughts there. Be willin' to let one go at a good price."
Alora peered around his humped shoulder, out of curiosity alone, and saw several ramshackle stalls. Cats threaded in and out of the bedding. Several of them perched on broad backs and watched her with slitted eyes. The windows on this side of the Livery were smaller and higher up, and let in less light. The shadows were heavy, as they moved and shifted in the sun's feeble glow through the dirt-encrusted panes.
The conglomeration of spavined hooves, fistulous withers, and swayed backs that belonged to the "fine draughts" combined together to give the area a dark, sinister quality. She heard a loud, blowing noise, like a pair of bellows, sounding from the corner. A horse with blown lungs, no doubt.
The picture was frightening. The stamps and snorts, the wheezing sounds, the slinking cats, and over all of this, a high bitter tang she recognized as wood that had absorbed its quota of cat piss. She glanced at the old man through watery eyes. How could he stand this? He gazed back, nonplussed, and stroked the kitten, a future contributor to the already drenched wood and she realized he no more had a sense of smell then a blind man had sight.
"Hmm. No, I don't need a horse. Got one. Just grain and water. How much?"
The words were short, and gave her answers a stilted tone, but the odor was so strong Alora imagined she could taste it. Like sour sweat and meat gone over. She wiped a hand hard against her mouth. "Don't throw up. Don't throw up." She thought. Hopefully this litany had the magical power to keep her from dropping onto all fours and upchucking into the dank bedding.
Pinchem's eyes shut with a fierce concentration and Alora could tell he was trying to calculate just how high he could go before she'd refuse to pay. She also noticed his eyes weren't shut tight enough to prevent a casual up and down perusal She frowned and resisted the urge to fold her arms across her chest. Most men, she'd found, had an endless series of images in their heads that they flipped through constantly. All women. All naked. Everyone had a bit part, including sisters, mothers, and casual acquaintances. Any female they'd ever met, seen, or imagined. She'd also found that most men were especially eager to let her lead this bizarre parade of flesh that pranced behind their eyelids and it annoyed her.
But underneath everything she was still young enough, unfortunately, to be embarrassed as well. The kind of embarrassment that caused you to raise a hand to your mouth and giggle helplessly until someone was kind enough to give you a quick slap and end your misery.
"A whole stableful of pussy and he's standing here feeling me up with his eyes."
The thought sprang from her discomposure and she drew in a deep, ragged breath and fought the urge to laugh. She knew she'd be sick if she did.
Pinchem sat the kitten down in the hay and watched it toddle off. Solitary female travelers were rare in Gandoura, especially ones in leather and that bore swords in elaborately tooled harnesses. He'd have to go to the Blackmantle and catch up on the latest scuttlebutt after she left. He'd fallen out of touch lately. Burl had tossed him out of the tavern several days ago after too many ales and one too many pinched hineys. The seven foot fantastically handsome and virile warrior that masqueraded as his nerve hadn't reappeared yet and that was one drinking companion he desperately needed before he could push open those doors again.
Maybe she was here to work in the tavern. His eyes gleamed a little brighter at the thought. One part of his mind, the side that stayed high and dry during his drunken binges, told him that was ridiculous. But the other part, a crouching goblin that tossed ale back relentlessly, envisioned many long, warm boozy nights with his fingers intimately connected to her firm backside. And maybe.....just maybe (this final thought had a certain orgasmic quality to it) she liked cats.
"How. Much. For. Grain. And. Water?" Alora spoke slowly and clearly in a voice she kept reserved for ogling men and the mentally deficient but it was lost on him as he continued to happily stare.
A loud, snorting squeal came from the other side of the Livery doors and Alora's mind had just enough time to register surprise at the sudden,familiar sound before a volatile mixture of rage and fury swept over her. She spun on the balls of her feet, her left hand already up and over, as she grabbed for her sword's hilt. "That little bastard, that little bastard!" looped endlessly through her mind as she ran for the doors and she forgot the old man, the grain and water, the cats, forgot everything but her anger. It burned and raced beneath her skin and embedded itself like molten iron against her every bone.
Her right foot connected against the Livery doors with a solid thud and her strength, combined with her anger, caused them to swing wild and slam against the side of the stable. She had never learned to control her rage. Her other emotions, sadness, happiness, fear, she could rein in but her anger always prowled close to the surface like a lion at the waterhole waiting for the animals to come and drink.
She allowed herself a tight smile. And Gareth was one slow piece of meat just waiting to be brought down.