Ol' Pinchem was speechless. Never one to miss a hullabaloo, he'd ducked out on Alora's heels and now stood, thunderstruck. He forgot about the cats that twined through his legs like irritating vines. Forgot about his dreams of a stable filled with equines instead of felines. All of that was neatly set aside so he could center his eyes on The Horse. He vaguely recognized Gareth (a proud-cut pony if he'd ever seen one) and wrote the scene off to a lovers' tiff. A warning voice from inside told him to take a closer look but he ignored it with an obstinance borne from a white-hot obsession.
Horses had always been a passion since he'd been old enough to walk. Pony, cob, gelding, stallion, they'd marked his growing up years like a smudge on a wall behind his head. A good horse was like a good drink. Smooth and easy with a lick of fire added in. He'd never trusted mares though. They were too much like women. They teased and squealed and always wanted the stud on the other side of the fence. Way too fickle for his tastes. He'd owned a lot of good horses but it had been a long time since he'd seen a stallion like this one. His heart flip-flopped in a neat series of joyous handsprings. He felt that old hankering from long ago rear up to get one, bowed arthritic leg over that satiny back.
The stud was huge, what Pinchem called "a whomper" back in his riding days and was blacker than pitch. The legs appeared to be carved out of oak and it gave the horse a cumbersome look. Pinchem wasn't fooled. This horse could bull himself through any situation he wasn't quick enough to get out of. The eyes were soft and clear. They gleamed with intelligence. That was a plus because there was nothing worse than a horse dead from the neck up. The tail was a breath away from touching the ground and the silky mane fell long on a sloping shoulder, a minor glitch in an otherwise perfect animal.
Pinchem frowned and scrubbed his chin fiercely with one shaking hand. The girl had kept him well, nice and shiny and free of burrs. He'd bob the tail though and roach the mane as soon as he paid out however much she wanted for him. He paused. He didn't like to part with money. Maybe she would trade. Three of those drafts eating their fool heads off for this one. Hell,he might even throw in a good horse. He studied the girl again. Beside the immense horse she appeared even smaller and he watched one of her slim hands stroke the stud's muzzle, the gesture delicate. He smiled. Maybe she wouldn't have a whole lot to say in the matter of Pinchem's new horse. He sidled closer to Alora.
"Nice lookin' draft. Nice lookin.' I'll give ya two or three drafts for 'em and some coin to boot. How bout it missy?"
Pinchem's mouth added the coin before he was even aware of it and he knew, right then, The Horse was necessary for him to take another breath and live another day. He crimped his little pancake hat up into a tight knot, and ignored the dull fire that flickered in his hands.
Alora stared at the old man. Wasn't this just a crackerjack ending to a superb day? Out of the corner of her eye she saw Gareth step up close. He reminded her of a dog with its fur up and she resisted the urge to drive her elbow deep into his ribcage. She looked at Pinchem. The old man cut a sad figure. He stood hunched over, his misshapen hands nothing but fist and bone around his ridiculous hat and she recognized the wild desperation on his face.
It was the desperation of seeing something you could no longer live without and you'd just realized how little of your life was your own. She pictured him at the local pub as he waited on a mug of ale with that same look. She leaned her head against Loki's stout neck.
No, he's mine." She replied, and hoped she sounded firm in light of the way she felt which was completely whipped. Any place would be better than this right now. Having red hot slivers run under her fingernails at the church. Being hung from a rafter in the tavern. Breathing cat piss in the Livery. Any place would do.
"He was bred for me by my people and he's mine until death and even if he wasn't, I couldn't sell him. You see, I'm the only one that's ever ridden him and..."
Alora fell silent. She knew she jabbered inanely when she was tired and it was a habit she'd tried hard to break. So far, she hadn't succeeded.
Pinchem's hat would never recover from the sudden, convulsive squeeze his throbbing hands gave it. His stomach rocked with a sick clench and he swallowed back a sour taste as the sound of her refusal echoed through his dusty chambers.
There were few things in his life he'd ever really wanted. When he'd ran across them, life paled and everything stopped until the object of desire was obtained. He likened it to a giant wheel needing one more spoke to keep on rolling.
That old wheel had rolled along a lot easier when Pinchem was younger. He remembered he used to laugh a lot, with his wife Sarah on his arm. And he remembered still being fast enough to run one step ahead of liquor's unrelenting grasp.
Sarah was dead now, buried so long she was nothing but ground herself. The wheel had wobbled then but still managed to hold its track. Then it was the tavern. It had wrapped its comforting arms around him and protected him from seeing Sarah's face in his bed on the nights he'd staggered home alone.
Even then that wheel had kept on rolling, weaving drunkenly but upright. Pinchem never thought he'd see the day when it became still again. When he needed something again.
The horses had been there long before Sarah and long after but this horse, this silky stallion with the bright eyes, exuded a youthful vigor that had been sucked from Pinchem long ago. Here was the chance to get a little bit of it back. A taste of those years when the person he was now was only a nightmare. A nightmare easily forgotten when he'd had Sarah to comfort him with the length of her body and the feel of her hands on his hard flesh. A long, quivering sigh slipped from between his dry lips and something inside took hold like stone.
"So. Call in some markers." He thought coldly. "Jonah and Roth owe so much on feed that if I asked them to steal this stud, they would. Call the bill even."
Now that the thought had taken hold, the rest easily fell into place. Pinchem could see that this girl was on some business or pleasure or riding through, either way he didn't give a tinker's damn. The sun was headed down. She'd be camping soon. Jonah and Roth were able enough with a sword (if he caught them before their third jug of ale). Besides, how good could she be with a blade?
Pinchem knew that women carried daggers or concealed picks. A sword in a woman's hands was nothing but show, plain and simple. It was all easy enough and he grinned, a crazy uncomplicated I-can't-wait smile that stretched from ear to ear. (But what about her? You know what they'll do, all liquored up and coming up on her at night)
His smile trembled. Well,so what? She shouldn't expect any less. Traveling alone with a horse like that and looking the way she did. He was a hard working man and luck didn't wander by often. But now that it had, guilt was just going to have to wait until the next time he'd had one too many drinks.
As Alora watched the old man a horrible, sinking sensation started in her throat and methodically worked its way down to her stomach. It was heavy and sodden, but it wasn't enough to extinguish a spark of anger. One hand reached up and wound protectively in Loki's mane. She stared at Pinchem and her eyes narrowed. Just when she thought she was almost done, another problem cropped up. This one was first-rate and designed to keep her up all night in an attempt to guard Loki, her horse-eaten cloak, and cookpot. For a moment, an eddy of emotions crossed her heart, so many and so quick, that she was confused. She was no longer sure what to do.
The anger was still there but was now accompanied by a growing tangle of confusion that made her want to laugh. Or cry. "Why would he steal my horse?" She thought, dazed. Her cold practicality spoke up and told her what she already knew too well. Because I'm The Twiceborn. The demon spawn. The Feaster of Souls. Her hand twisted a little tighter into the coarse mane.
Anything of hers the peasants could get their hands on was regarded as powerful mojo and would supposedly weaken her in the bargain. She watched the little man hem and haw in front of her. (Pinkem? Patchem? Damn,she couldn't remember names) Stealing Loki from the Twiceborn. It stank of one of those horrible epics the bards told about in awed tones.
She imagined the story went something like this:
Pinchem would take Loki, and guarantee himself a lifetime supply of free ale. She, in turn, would be weakened by a strange bout of epizooties. In her weakened state, the brave townspeople would stake her ears into the earth or whatever archaic ritual they believed would rid them of her evil. Pinchem would be revered as a righteous god until he drank too much one night and fell and split his head open like a melon. Then he'd be an icon. A noble, Brede-inspired legend. The virtuous nature brought about from the theft of Loki and her demise plus the sacrifice of his life would definitely cancel out the "Should Not Steal" code.
Alora took a step towards Pinchem.
"You want my horse?" She asked, her voice soft.
Pinchem jumped like he'd been goosed. Alora's voice was husky, sand on silk, and contained a sly invitation he found impossible to ignore. He nodded, slack-mouthed,and stared at her, with a need he remembered from younger days.
Her eyes are so black." He mused,and drifted away. Alora stepped closer. Pinchem's thoughts strayed back to a summer storm earlier that week. The pale, yellow charge of quiet before the crash of thunder. That's her nature. Like the storm, hushed expectancy. How had he ever thought her to be nothing but a girl?
She was beautiful. The black of her hair spread on the dark earth beneath a bone white moon. It called to him in words unknown. He saw himself with this vision, laying with her and filling her with all he had to offer. Overhead, the moon would hide its grin and it would be black and cold. And good.
And the things she'd teach me, eyes of the dark, shadows in shadows. Attending the danse arm in arm, where the mummers wear lunatic smiles and little else and our souls unmask at midnight beneath a phantom moon
Pinchem took a step back, stumbled, and fell. His hands scrabbled behind him and clutched at the comfortingly solid dirt. His arthritis was nothing but a dim memory. He felt as though he'd opened a door locked to his kind. A heavy door he'd pushed hard on and seen...what?
He wiped a hand across lips gray as ash and his heart trip-trapped up into his throat.
Cold fire. A room filled with cold fire, and dark glass. Where the moonstruck dance. Their laughter makes the jackals cringe
The strange thought flew through his mind, borne on dark wings, and he shuddered. Terror filled him. A terror of not knowing what side of the door he wanted to be on.
"Oh Sarah, what happened to me?" Pinchem thought, feeling older and more feeble than ever. Nothing but a hollowed, dried up, stretched out piece of leather old man. Filled with nothing but memories wrapped in cobwebs and the inability to hold his piss in the night. Yet, for a moment, something had whispered in him, a whisper far beyond simple words. Of how things had been. The dark step and glide of youth where nothing is impossible and everything, every woman, could be had. He groaned aloud.
Alora dropped onto one knee, her left elbow propped up and her other hand holding the reins of The Horse Pinchem no longer wanted. Her slim hand grazed his cheek and moved like a spider across his skin.
"I'll be camped right outside town. Near that copse of trees." Her voice was filled with a breathy anticipation.
" You still want my horse, come out and get him." A grin played across her lips, and widened gleefully. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Don't forget to bring your friends."
She gave a soft laugh, a laugh just for him.
"Sarah? Are you...Sarah?"
Pinchem squinted his eyes at the figure kneeling by him. No,no that wasn't it. The sense of familiarity was gone, lost in a wave of confusion. But the question was still there. It hammered away in his head like an overzealous smith at the forge. It was suddenly very important to him that he know its answer.
Pinchem glanced wildly around, and took in the white, silent faces of the people crowded around that he'd known all his life. Their eyes slid away, then back. They fixed on him with an avid eagerness. He couldn't understand all the expressions filled with various degrees of horror and fascination.
"Sarah?" A thready croak was all he could manage and yes, he knew it wasn't Sarah but he hoped her name would prove to be a talisman against whoever this was.
Alora looked at him and felt a wave of despair. It was surpassed only by her sense that things would get worse before they got better.
Just an old man. An old man that likes my horse." She thought bleakly. How did she manage to always turn everything into one big balls-up catastrophe?
Loki could have probably protected himself well enough to keep from being taken by a band of geriatric night raiders without her help.
She turned away, and brushed by Gareth,as she swung up into the saddle. Gareth watched and she frowned at him until he turned away. "This was all his fault." A childish voice inside her said but she knew that wasn't entirely true. She realized Pinchem still gazed at her with curiosity, his mouth soundlessly working.
Alora untied the waterskins from around her saddlehorn. Her stiff fingers stumbled over the wraps. A game she used to play when she was young floated through her mind. She smiled bitterly. She hadn't thought of it in years. It had been something schemed up out of their imagination. A hodgepodge of tag, hide and seek, and some sort of bizarre capture ruse. She didn't remember the rules. If there had been any. The whole thing involved a lot of running, and hiding and headlocks and bloodied knees. Fights would erupt, and tempers exploded at being thumped one time too many but the magical words "I take it back" had always fixed everything. Made everything all right again.
It had been a fun game, a brief game compared to the rest of her childhood. A nonsensical game. She never would have dreamed it would become a haunting game though, with the ghost-like ability to call to her over the years.
"If I said it now, would it work? Would everything just go back to the way it was?"
She wondered.The words were still powerful to her. She opened her mouth to try, hell, anything was possible and heard herself say instead:
" No. Not Sarah. I'm the last of the Tribe of the Dark Moon. You call me The Twiceborn."