The morning dawned uncharacteristically cool and Duran opened up the Livery with a sense of optimism. Everything appeared the same outside, right down to the thick smell of Fetch's grease-fried pork bread, a staple for anyone who'd gotten ripped to the tits the night before.
The shadows were gone. They no longer wound their way like snakes through the trees or clotted in the corners of the buildings. A heavy weight lifted from Duran's chest and a vast relief swept over him. The kind of relief that only a man who'd gone from death to life within a day could understand.
It wasn't entirely over. He'd have to spend a few days in church and would wind up tithing a good amount of coin, along with some material possessions, but that was jim-dandy compared to the alternative. And he'd have to deal with Havnor. He ducked his head and scowled as he glanced up the road.
A mud-brown 'stag plodded along, it's ratty tail swishing sullenly back and forth at a quick rate. Duran suddenly grinned at the sight. He knew 'stags well enough to see a potential balls-to-the-wall explosion in the works. The rider was as tall and thin as a broomstick and Duran's grin stretched wider.
"He's going to be off of there right quick like once that 'stag starts to boil." Duran thought gleefully. Part of him wanted to see that, see this gangly man fly through the air and land in a bone-bruising heap in the dust just so he could laugh loud and long. He had a feeling it might be his only chuckle of the day.
As if on cue, the 'stag bowed his back and gave 3 quick, stiff-legged hops. The rider, dust flying off his threadbare robes, cursed and yanked the reins up hard.
"You sorry, jack-off runt bastard-"
Duran started to chuckle.
"-son of a bitch, my boot is going straight up your worthless ass so far you're going to-"
Duran put his hands on his knees and began to laugh.
"-shit leather for days-"
The little 'stag tacked like a wayward ship towards the Livery and Duran quickly side-stepped the angry brown rump that came swinging about in his direction.
"Hey,watch your mount."
The raw-boned man scowled down at the boy struggling to control his laughter. His ass felt like it had been worn down with sanded parchment, the inside of his mouth was crusted with dust because the water had gone bad at the last spring he'd stopped at and now this little pissant was just waiting to see him get knocked on his ass.
"Hey,watch yourself." He grunted. "Word's out that devil whore is around these parts...seen her?"
Duran grabbed the 'stag's bridle and played with the bit to hold the animal's attention.
"Why? And who are you,anyway?"
"Grif. From Lochedge. I have a message for her. Got any more questions,boy?"
Grif held himself back to keep from flying off the 'stag and knocking the shit out of this nosy little bastard. If he had a pint of ale for every time he'd been asked that question, he'd be drunk as a lord by now.
Duran shrugged and rubbed the little 'stag's nose. He didn't really want to know anymore. Getting back to his every day life of grooming, feeding, and shoveling shit was the finest thing he could think of at the moment.
"She's in the Livery. Are you going to stay in town for a while? If so, you might think about stabling your 'stag. Alot of people don't like having them hitched on the street."
The nonchalant run of words went by a little too quickly for Grif. He shifted nervously in his saddle and felt the 'stag's hindquarters veer to the left with all the speed of a striking adder.
"Son of a -..."
The ground came up to meet him with a frightening quickness and Grif felt a red hot lancet of pain race across his hips as he fell, hard. The word "bitch!" was forcibly woofed out as all the air was knocked from his lungs.
The 'stag threw his head back and yanked free of Duran's tentative grasp then exploded up the street, running and bucking to rid itself of the cumbersome saddle.
"Guess you won't have to worry about if you're going to stable him or not." Duran murmured as he watched the little animal race up the road.
Grif got to his feet and grimaced. His hip had already settled into a deep ache that twinged with every breath. He wondered if he was going to have to go and see the local healer in this shitty little town. Back in Lochedge, Darius had put up the coin for this little excursion but he'd be putting up a lot more if Grif had to be laid up somewhere to mend.
"You've got to help me catch that thing, boy."
Duran shook his head.
"He's got too much deer in him, you'll never catch him."
Grif turned and glared at Duran.
"Why,you little snotnose! What in the fuck am I supposed to do then?"
Duran wasn't a fighter but he could see himself balling up a fist and driving all of his anger and fear from the night before right into this bag of bones. He struggled to control himself.
"Well...'stags are cheap. I have some for sale if you want to look at them."
Grif spat on the ground. His contempt for the entire situation was encapsulated in that one gesture and there wasn't a single word he could have uttered that would better express his personal opinion of Duran.
"What's going on?"
One minute Alora had been sitting in the hay with her face and head banging merrily away in time with her heartbeat and now here was this man yelling so very,very loudly about what he was supposed to do now. She had to bite back a few suggestions she had for him that were right on the tip of her tongue.
Grif took an involuntary step back. But he wasn't afraid. It had been too many days of riding, too many times of having to try and pull stones out of that 'stag's hooves and try not to be kicked in trade, and too many bowls of greasy mutton and moldy bread in noplaceville. And now...The Twiceborn might put a curse on him? She couldn't do any better than what had already been done. Still though...demon or no, she looked like a tasty piece even with her face all bunged up.
You The Twiceborn?"
Grif couldn't quite meet the ebon eyes that settled on him speculatively. He felt her sizing him up. He usually didn't mind women looking at him and appraising his worth. It had actually happened so seldom he couldn't truly form an opinion about it but something about The Twiceborn looking at him made his balls start to sweat. There was just something not...right...about her. A wildness. Something untamed beneath that covering of skin. Grif knew her beauty to be cold and as restless as trees on a windy,moonless night and he had never before been a man that those kinds of thoughts occurred to.
"Some call me that." Alora took in his dusty robes and dirty face. There was exhaustion there and frustration. There was also a down and out meanness that just waited to snap at the closest hand. Of course, she never expected any different. People weren't exactly lining up to deliver messages to her.
"Darius Buron sent me. From Lochedge." Grif shifted from one foot to the other.
Alora frowned. Lochedge was a good ride away, through the Cordon Woods. And the name Darius meant nothing to her.
"Yeah? And what does he want with me?" Alora felt Islinn at her elbow. Grif's eyes shifted.
"He wants you for his brother, Alain. He died a few nights back."
Died was a kind way of putting it. From what Grif had heard on the streets and in the tavern, Alain had screamed his throat bloody while some kind of rot had clawed and ate its way through his belly. He'd taken his last gasp right in the middle of shitting his insides out. And just how this devil's bitch was going to make any of that better was beyond him.