Loki's head shot up at the sound of the Livery doors and he danced nervously, eyes rolling. Gareth whipped around at the sharp crack of wood on wood and snatched his hands away from the saddlebags. He shoved them behind his back. His face wore the guilty expression of a mischievous little boy and, earlier in the day, it might have worked.
Gareth's eyes widened and he felt his flesh actually tighten, and pull closer to his bones as she stalked towards him.
I'm sorry, I was just loosening the saddle, I didn't mean anything!"
All of these words jammed in his throat and he opened his mouth to throw them out for whatever they were worth but couldn't make a sound. He staggered back. He remembered how afraid he'd been when Lese attacked. The slow, submerged quality that the destruction of the attack had taken on, like movement beneath water. That was nothing compared to his fear now.
He moaned, an odd rasping sound. She moved towards him, cat-like and quick ("Wicked quick!"), and his feet tangled beneath him. He fell and she was on him. Her face wore no expression as her sword tip made a dimple in the flesh beneath his chin. Her right hand came up and caressed his cheek. Gareth felt as if his body had been sluiced down with ice water as her fingers feathered across his cheek.
His teeth snapped together in a painful crunch that echoed inside his head. He had never wanted to run so badly before in his life but he couldn't move. Random thoughts solidified. The great garble of panic inside his head stopped and he saw himself. Inside himself. Every emotion had jelled and hung suspended. Another moan escaped his blued lips. It was the nonsensical cry of an animal brought to bay and he saw her, through unblinking eyes, lean in and felt her icy whisper. The words slipped into his ear and glided across his frozen mind.
It was a language he'd never spoken or heard. But he inherently knew the meaning of the words. They were ancient runes, carved into the meat of his heart by an unknown hand at birth. Words that would only reveal their knowledge to him when he took his final breath. His soul, the only fire in a frozen river, spoke up and identified the sound as the language of the Dead. The words rolled through him, nothing more than a casual whisper.They nosed past his superficial facade and dove into the very meat of his primal fears with sickening ease. His mind opened, unwillingly, and it was rape. A vicious taking he couldn't control.
His father dying, the sweaty caverns of his pleading face becoming still.
The suffocating need of his mother as she looked on him, Gareth, to walk in those still shoes.
The back breaking weariness of losing his crops and that incoherent voice of What now? What now?
And the timeless fear of Death, the how, when, where, and why of its black hand kneading his flesh.
Gareth's eyes shuttered closed. His limp hands thrummed the ground as though he'd been stroked by lightning. Images flashed across his eyelids, all his fears, great and small, in one fell swoop.
The pictures came faster, accompanied by a raucous orchestra of shame. They ran the gamut from a childhood fear of the dark to his father crawling from the grave, maggots tumbling from his empty mouth, as he begged Gareth to stay. Slowly the forms receded and returned to their warm,dark nest, until they were nothing but a dot of light that winked out with an audible, grinding pop.
Gareth braced himself on trembling hands and stared up at Alora, not trusting his legs or voice. He recalled images but was unsure of their content or why they'd made him feel so terrified. An uneasy sense began to grow in him and he suddenly knew what those images would be. He also knew they'd return when he least expected them. A nasty jolt of surprise followed by a guilt he thought he'd dealt with long ago. It was a feeling deep in his guts and it spoke in a voice so plain he could have sworn he heard it aloud.
(I've put these black goodies away for safe-keeping but the next time you can't sleep and you're laying there staring up at the ceiling, I'll trot one out, okay by you? Or hey, how about when you've drunk too much and you're trying to find your way home in the dark! How'd you like your father to walk with you for a bit? You would? Great! And don't worry, your mother will be at the house when you get there. She'll be waiting to ask you why you couldn't love her any better than you did so go on, have some more to drink! We'll alll help you get home!)
Gareth felt a large, hot lump of tears rise up in his throat. He bit down hard on his lower lip.
"You devil bitch! You tried to kill me!"
It was the voice of a child, strident and accusatory. Alora looked at him with an uneasy mixture of anger and shame. The whole thing (she didn't have a name for it) had taken only seconds, his memories so fleeting they might have been nothing more than shadows. But she had caused their imprint to dig in deep. More emotion than mass, they'd scar him and suck out his will to live the same as if she'd grabbed his hands and slit both wrists. She looked away.
The brilliance of the sun had taken on a reddish-gold color and it bathed everything in a deeper, more contemplative tone. Light sketches of purple etched through the colors and she noticed the shadows of the gawking townspeople had grown longer. The staleness of the air was now completely gone, driven away by a cool, dusky breeze and the trees that crouched on the edge of the grasses looked like patches of velvet.
Alora noticed all of this, hands on hips, and wanted nothing more then to swing her leg over Loki and ride towards some of that velvet. Far away from this , botched up, piss out a window mistake.
"Tag end of the day." She thought. She glanced back at Gareth. He looked up at her, his eyes filled with terror. She saw something behind that fear though, a desperate adoration, and she felt some of her irritation kick back in.
"I won't tell you this again. What's mine is mine. I don't have much, but what I do have, I guard well. You understand?"
Alora knew the quick bob of his head and the ghostly pallor of his face were genuine. What followed though, the cheesy grin, the matter-of-fact shrug was just a show for all the wide-eyed fence peepers. She watched as he brushed off his leggings and the bottom half of his tunic. Her lip curled with distaste. He'd succeeded in guaranteeing himself a night of free ale at the local pub with this little show. She didn't like being cast in the role of stage prop to his melodrama.
Alora raked an impatient hand through her hair, a nervous habit she wasn't aware of. She didn't own a lot. A horse, a saddle, a bridle, and her saddlebags which, according to legend, contained anything from an actual imp's ear (now there was a guarantee of a lifetime of free ale) to hoof shavings from ol' Belphigor himself.
"They would be frightened if I showed them what I really had." She thought,as she watched Gareth hold his hands up to the crowd to show he'd survived his encounter. "A cookpot I sometimes don't wash real well and a wool cloak Loki ate a hole in." Yet everyone wanted to dig through and dig they would, curiosity and fear battling together to turn her possessions into one big, giant itch they couldn't quite scratch.
Gareth, on the other hand, no longer had any curiosity about what her saddlebags contained. None at all. He'd been badly frightened. His grin was a trifle too wide and his hands shook like he had palsy but he wasn't about to give an inch. Not with Sar and the rest of the town staring, white-faced, with their mouths dropped open in case a fly wandered by. What in Brede's name did she do? He turned and stared at Alora and the force of her beauty struck him like a physical blow. A deep, gut-wrenching punch that robbed him of all the air in his lungs and set up a dull ache in the pit of his belly. She stared back, her black eyes furious, then turned away and presented him with a taut shoulder.
Loki stood motionless, his platter-sized hooves rooted to the grass. But looks were deceiving. Alora knew he could dance just out of reach with all the grace of a deer in full flight. Fortunately, he sensed it wasn't a good time to play. She grabbed his reins and stroked the soft flesh between his dilated nostrils. The black head lowered and he whuffled her cheek, enveloping her in the warm, sweet scent of oats and grass. She smiled, in spite of the fact she could feel Gareth's eyes as they trotted up and down her back and gave her the old once over. She was definitely going to stop at the pond outside Leomedon and scrub down with a good handful of sand.
Whatever it was she'd done when she grabbed Gareth (and countless others in the past) the fundamentals of it always left her feeling as though she were coated in a thin film of slime. Like she'd taken a quick roll in rotting garbage. There had been an...exchange. Alora couldn't think of any other way to describe it. His shame for her anger. Her rule of thumb had always been never to touch other people. They gave off a bewildering ooze of fear, bravado, and horror she'd always found repulsive. But sometimes, like with Gareth, people needed to be snatched up and given a good shake, regardless of the consequences.
Loki seemed none the worst for wear. She reached up and tugged on one shaggy ear,delighted by the way he tilted his head like an obedient dog. When it came to patience, he obviously had the longer fuse.