The day was sweltering without a single cloud in the sky but, for once, Alora didn't mind. She was glad to get out of the stable and away from the frightened rabbit glances of the scurrying townspeople and Duran's silent disapproval of her choice to go on breathing air for another day. She loosened the reins and dug her heels into Loki's sides and the big horse quickly moved out, possibly as glad to leave Leomedon as she was.
She settled deep into the saddle as Loki decided to grace her with his rocking horse canter and the hot breeze felt good on her neck and face. She tried not to think about Lochedge and the Hynti but it crouched at the back of her mind and steadily throbbed in sync with her face.
She might be riding to Lochedge but she hadn't decided if she was going to help Darius Buron or not. She knew damned well something wasn't right about the whole story. Grif had been no mental giant but he was wily enough to know just how much to say and plead ignorance to everything else. But she was curious to see what the Night Hags were up to.
She had forgotten about Islinn. Silently cursing, she reined Loki up and swung him around. She was surprised to see Islinn quickly rein in the stag to avoid a near collision with Loki. The little speckled stag crow-hopped sideways but Islinn quickly straightened her out with one firm pull to the outside rein. Alora noticed the stag had barely broken a sweat whereas Loki had already started to foam a bit across his chest. Fortunately, they'd be reaching the woods soon.
"You ride well." Alora commented. "Your family have horses?"
"No. My father had a 'stag."
Alora searched her mind for a topic of conversation. Loki had always been an excellent traveling companion, a little cantankerous at times, but his main concern was when she was going to fill his feedbag. He was very low maintenance out on the roads. Having another person along was a whole different matter. What she hadn't realized was that Islinn didn't need conversation; she was a slave. She was used to being spoken to when there was a task at hand for her to perform. Other than that, she didn't need conversation any more than Loki did.
"You must have ridden a lot though. You seem to ride very well." Alora frowned slightly as Loki dropped his head to glare at the 'stag. The little 'stag shook its head in warning and stamped a hoof.
"I ride well enough."
Alora attempted to swing Loki around and continue on but he was having no part of it. He whoofed air through his nostrils as he tried to intimidate the 'stag but the little beast glared boldly at him and stamped her hoof again. Islinn took up her reins and circled the 'stag away. The little beast moved off easily enough but insolently flipped its tail up and over its back. Loki squealed his outrage at this affront and started to dance in place.
"Stop it!" Alora hissed as she struggled to turn him about. She finally managed to haul his head around to one side where he looked up at her with one eye as if to say, "how can you tolerate that thing??" Alora glanced over and saw both Islinn and the 'stag mildly watching her struggle.
"I'm sure he'll be fine; he's not used to having stags around, is all."
"I'm sure." Islinn replied.
Alora thought she detected a faint hint of humor in the girl's brown eyes but Islinn's face remained carefully composed.
Alora finally got Loki wrestled around and headed in the right direction. Islinn prudently kept the stag a little ways off to the right of the dark horse. They traveled along in silence.
"So…Islinn…what did your father do? For a living?"
"We owned a small croft. He was a farmer."
"What did he grow?"
"Is that all?"
"What else?" Alora was becoming desperate.
"Look. You don't have to talk to me." Islinn sighed. "I doubt you're all that interested in crops. I know I wasn't."
"I just thought it would pass the time, is all. Are you thirsty?"
"Yes. I am." Islinn reined in the stag and watched as Alora pulled a waterskin from her packs. Alora held out the skin and saved herself from the sight of Islinn's hesitation.
"Here. I haven't drank out of this one or touched the water. I have a skin of my own."
Islinn nodded and took the water. She eyed Alora as she sipped.
"Does it bother you? Being so…different?"
Alora thought about it for a moment. She was reluctant to answer even such a simple question. When she delved into her own private insecurities and hesitancies, she did it alone. She'd never had anyone ask her anything about herself. She felt exposed, and suddenly defenseless.
"Nope." She replied crisply. "I'm not around people enough to really notice it."
Islinn gave a single nod and silently handed the waterskin back. Alora saw a chance at conversation starting to fade. She turned Loki and nudged him towards the treeline in the distance.
"Are you glad to be away from Behrin?"
Islinn thought for a moment.
"Yes. And no." She eyed Alora, attempting to gauge her reaction.
Alora nodded. The answer didn't surprise her. She had half expected Islinn to say "No, no, and no. Take me back right now." But she hadn't. So there was some hope, Alora supposed.
"Hope that we can continue this horribly uncomfortable and awkward silence in the future." She thought wryly. She ran a hand through her mass of curls and squinted in the harsh sunlight. The novelty of being out of Leomedon was beginning to wear off as sweat dampened her leathers. She glanced at Islinn as the girl trotted the little stag alongside.
"Do you like her? The stag?
A tiny smile curved Islinn's lips.
"Yes,I do. She's very quick but she's good-hearted, I can tell. And she wants to please, that's rare in a stag. The stable boy said she was one of the best bred ones he'd seen."
"Duran. Yes, he knows quite a bit about draughts and stags. " Alora thought about Duran's conversation with her. She was still a little taken aback by his boldness. "And he appears to finally be growing a pair as well."
Alora studied Islinn as the girl rode guilelessly along. There was a strength to her face, that rode the line of her high cheekbones and told a story of sacrifice yet her innocence bled through every breath, every movement and made her appear much younger than her sixteen winters.
"Tell me something Islinn; do you have any idea how pretty you are?"
Islinn's face flushed beneath her tanned features.
"I've…never thought about it." She replied, perplexed by the question. "Why?"
"I remember the first time I met Duran, he could barely look at me. Him and I had finally reached a point of…uncomfortable tolerance I guess." Alora wiped the sweat from her face with her forearm. "He meets you and he's immediately questioning me about your welfare. Your champion." This last sentence had a slight sarcastic edge to it that Islinn chose to ignore.
"I don't think people put themselves out on my account because of the way I look."
Alora heaved a sigh as she slapped Loki on the neck in an attempt to stop him from eyeballing the stag.
" Yes Islinn, they do. Or, they will, anyway. You'll get to see it first-hand in some of the towns we go through. "