The Last of the Tribe of the Dark Moon had forgotten to purchase food for herself and it was too dark to forage. Alora scowled and scraped her fingers through her hair. Loki watched her calmly as he chewed his grain.
"Yeah. You have food." She said,her voice loud in the stillness.
Well, she did too if you wanted to call it that. She'd ridden through a squalid little town called Holden and bought some dried pepper fish from a tiny woman who'd run out and greeted her with a frightening intensity.
Clad in rags, the crone had referred to herself as a "spellt woman" and considered it a true honor from the UnderRealms to have The Twiceborn ride through. Her eager eyes and birdlike movements gave away her plans to spend the day swapping infernal recipes with the Last of the Tribes of the Dark Moon. She'd been bitterly disappointed when she realized the fish that hung over her smoking fire was the main attraction. Alora had liked the fish, at first. But three days of it was enough.
She laughed softly and held her hands out towards the fire. She could still feel the woman's twisted hand tugging at her stirrup.
"Hairballs." The crone had whispered.
One lonely tooth jutted from her upper gum.
"Get y'self some of ye own hair,black as shad, and roll it up with beeswax. Chuck this at your enemies and it'll go right through their skin. Kill 'em deader-n-dead. Belly up for the sun goes down."
The crone had given her two crisp pats on the knee then wandered away, humming an off-key tune.
Alora looked up at Loki as she leaned back against her saddle and stretched her toes towards the fire.
"How dead is deader-n-dead? Huh?"
Her voice sounded unnatural, out of place, and she fell silent. She watched him graze. She might find out about "deader-n-dead" if she kept eating the fish. It had been properly dried (according to a one-toothed, not-right-in-the-head "spellt woman". What in the hell had she been thinking when she bought it??) but how long could anything last in this heat? Thinking about the heat made her think of the pond outside of Leomedon. Which, in turn, made her think of why she wasn't there at the present moment. She reached for a waterskin and took a long drink.
Sar and his men, all wrapped in homemade armor, had practiced and practiced. Their fierce war cries had carried to her on the evening breeze. She wondered briefly how many of them had keeled over in the heat. And what the odds were of Gareth being one of them.
She pictured him as he lay there, his face carrot red from all the blood pushed upward from his lower extremities due to his too-tight pants. One hand resting protectively against his crotch. All the village women would wail with their grief. Or, if they were smart, dance with joy.
This little fantasy was quite satisfactory and she laid her head back against her saddle to watch the first stars tear a hole in the black sky. Something crunched underfoot off in the brush and she started, caught off guard. She sat up, and stared hard into the darkness. Good. Sar had showed up earlier than expected and that meant she might get a full night's sleep. Usually she waited up while they paced around down in their village, wringing their hands and thinking, "Should I go, should I stay, should I go,should I stay?" over and over until she wanted to scream.
The figure strolled towards her and she recognized the cheeky walk long before the firelight lit up his features.
"Great." She thought sourly as Gareth snapped to a halt and stuck his arms out over the fire. A sense of bad things coming back around went through her, a wild, blinding shoot-the-moon embodiment she could no more control then she could not play the part she'd been given. It was a helpless feeling, as deep and dark and blue as the night. She got to her feet and stared into the flames.She slanted a quick glance towards the leathers she'd stripped off and tossed into a haphazard pile. Another bad call.
Reality-wise, it had been too hot and uncomfortable to lay around fully clothed when her chemise was more than enough in the summer heat. As an image though, the scenario had all the trappings of a clandestine roll in the hay. A breeze rippled her hair and she was aware of its cool touch on entirely too much exposed skin.
Gareth tried not to stare at her as he positioned himself close to the fire. A sappy smile struggled to link his ears together and he fought it, because he knew that was the quickest route to ruining a moment he'd envisioned ever since she'd rode out of town. Her lack of clothing told him he'd been right all along. She'd been waiting for him! A series of pictures floated in front of his eyes, made slow by their torrid intensity, and he watched them, enthralled.
(She stood by the fire and, instead of that maddening camisole, she was naked, firelight licking across her flesh like strands of black rope, reaching for him, pulling him into her, ankles locking against the small of his back and pushing him into a wild delirious rhythm, whispering, "I've been waiting and waiting...)
Gareth was sweating. He stepped back from the fire and his fantasy and adjusted himself with a patient hand. There were formalities first. The how do you dos and do-si-dos that women required and men endured until it was time to push the plow, in a manner of speaking. And chatting up women was his specialty. He wiped wet palms across the seat of his breeches and tamped down the desire to clear his throat and make sure he still had a voice. Offhand, he couldn't remember ever having buck fever this bad. Not even that oh-so-memorable time he'd lured Amber Blackmantle into one of Pinchem's empty stalls. He grinned.
(She'd been so stupid. He'd told her he had "stone disease", and pressed her hand against the front of his trousers to illustrate his point. "Only you can save me, Amber," He'd told her. He'd unbuttoned his pants with trembling fingers. "I'll die if you don't help me. It'll explode and I'll bleed to death. You don't want that to happen do you?" No, she didn't want that to happen. She'd stared at his swollen pike, as the blue veins pulsed in a spectacular manner.It was so real it appeared unplanned. She'd nodded willingly. Anything to save his life. It had taken a bit, noble effort or not, she'd been shy. First her hand. Finally, after rolling and thrashing and one instance of holding his breath and rolling his eyes into his head, she'd finally given in and used her mouth. He'd hovered close to death several times before her legs fell open but it had been well worth the wait)
Maybe that was why he was so nervous now. This woman wasn't some scatter-brained, barkeep's whelp. She was The Twiceborn. He turned his head and stared at her. He knew he looked like some kind of corn-fed, country hick but he couldn't help himself. Simply put, she was flawless. He'd had plenty of women over the years, some the picture of pretty and some, well, some that had been on the wrong end of a kicking horse. But he had never been face to face with a girl that could be called beautiful.
She wasn't tall, maybe five feet six, and her skin appeared to be as smooth and silky as a fawn's belly. Which was unlike a lot of women whose faces had more crevasses than a trade road. But what struck him the most, even more then the long, black, curly hair or the deep set blue-black eyes, was the vulnerability. It bled through her every expression, her every mannerism and he was drawn to it like a wolf drawn to a fresh kill. His eyes took on a calculative gleam. She didn't know she had it, this wonderful fresh-as-rain innocence. But he did and his mind busily began clicking over all the ways to turn it to his advantage.
"Awfully hot out tonight, isn't it?"
Gareth knew he'd had better openings but he found it difficult to be glib as she stood, almost naked, at his elbow.
(Wearing nothin but goosebumps and me as horny as a double-peckered mule." His father always said, leaving Gareth to wonder if the old man was referring to his mother or someone else")
"What do you want? This is none of your business out here."
Alora's voice was husky with smoke . She caught a whiff of Gareth on the shifting breeze: sweat and a peculiar salty aroma that made her think of brackish water. She stepped away, repulsed by his closeness. If she were smart (how many times had her thoughts started out with those words?) she'd pull on her leathers. At least the leggings. But she stayed put. All she wanted was to get this business done with. She hadn't asked him to come sniffing around. She felt him step up by her and had a sudden vision of them playing ring-around-the-rosie until he tackled her like a rutting buck.
"I don't want anything." Gareth delivered this line complete with a reassuring hand spread. "Well. Maybe the coin you owe me. I paid for the grain, remember?""
Gareth tried to catch her eye to show he was only joking she looked away. He felt his teeth start to grind together. Awfully prickly for someone who'd waited for him,half-naked.
The fire popped loudly, and sent motes of flame dancing into the glossy night. Crickets whirred in the underbrush and the strange fire of the fairydance mushrooms began to glow here and there, dotting the ground with their malignant light. Alora ignored Gareth and watched the tiny sparks of fire wink out, blown swirling in the breeze. Her mother had always loved the wind. "Hawks are flying, Alora." She'd say, and gather her kit in close, her eyes moonlit and mad.
The memory was a good one and she smiled, the kind of gentle smile unknowingly designed to make men forget everything but that soft upturn.
As he watched her, Gareth knew the balance of power had suddenly shifted as easily as a ball is tossed from one hand to another. Only a few moments ago, he could have gracefully bowed out with his ego intact in the event something went wrong (what he couldn't imagine). But now something had changed and he knew he had to have her. She had suddenly become essential, like water, like air. Gareth felt like he no longer had a choice. (What now? What now?)
Timber cracked off in the distance and he heard the vague thunder of its laying down. Alora stiffened, and cocked her head. "Hearing her Master's voice." He thought, for no reason. His breath snagged, dry and hot, in his throat.
Alora was no longer aware of Gareth. They were coming. She heard the steady rumble of their paws as they loped off the dark miles and imagined them the way she'd seen them before,as they ran along, their strange flat eyes filled with a horrid eagerness. Her teeth found her bottom lip. She bit down and closed her eyes at the salty,copper taste. A hot shiver raced up her spine and something inside yawned, stretched, and awakened.
She had time though. She could still watch with her mind and enjoy the way the moon splashed across their patched coats. The way their saliva flung into the brush and blackened the fertile green. She swayed slightly,and smiled.
Gareth felt himself getting spooked as he watched Alora. She'd heard something which had caused her to close her eyes and start swaying with all the fervor of a religious fanatic. He might as well have not even been there. He listened and heard nothing unusual. The popping of the fire, wind, horses off in the Livery. Or maybe it was Sar. He stiffened, and strained to hear. Nothing. It would be just like Sar though to show up at the wrong time, wringing his hands, and begging to be dazzled by mumbo jumbo.
"So." He said heartily,and clapped his hands together. " We'll forget about the coin and just talk for a bit."
She jerked as if she'd been asleep but didn't open her eyes. After a moment, the swaying resumed. Gareth tried again.
"You know, Sar probably won't show up. I've heard he's scared of the dark. I could take his place..."
Nothing. It was like trying to talk to a mute and the swaying had begun to rattle him. Any other girl that acted like this would have already been bid adieu and he would be propped up in front of the fire at Blackmantle's sharing all the details of the imaginary conquest. He shot her a lingering glance, and noticed how the moon silvered her bare legs. Was it possible for him to walk away from this? His mouth quirked into a humorless smile.
"I bet you'd be surprised how much we have in common, you know. I've traveled around some myself. Going to festivals. I've been all the way to Volna, across the Scheredan Range. Hey, how old are you?"
Alora opened her eyes and blinked a few times.
"I'm...I'm nineteen. I've seen nineteen winters." Her voice was no longer guarded, like he'd somehow managed to slip into the deeper boundaries of her mind. A flash of surprise flitted across her face at being so easily accessed.
"How does it feel, you cunt?" He thought savagely. He chuckled and rubbed his hands together over the fire.
"I've seen twenty-three myself. It must be hard to be that young and have no home. No family. My family died a while ba..."
Gareth felt the girl brush past him and watched as she went over to her saddlebags. Her back was to him and, as she squatted down, her chemise rucked up, giving him a view that left him light-headed. Being as horny as a double-peckered mule suddenly didn't seem so far-fetched.
Alora rose and turned, walking towards him, and Gareth knew the game had just ended. His slow play had been seen through. He no longer had any glib expressions, or pat answers. All he possessed was a fierce yearning, a force so wild, and so vast, it couldn't be contained by his clumsy attempts to be charming. His arms rose instinctively and he had the insane notion that he'd been waiting for her all his life.
Alora stopped and eyed his outstretched arms with all the white-lipped fascination one reserved for a leper. She held out her hand.
"Here's your coin. Now leave."
He gaped at her, incredulous. A savage twist of emotion rippled his face,and turned it into something loathsome. His arms fell to his sides with a vicious slap.
"You don't understand.." He blushed and stopped. Explaining what he feared to be a life-threatening case of blue balls was not in his vocabulary this time around. His hands knotted in helpless rage.
"Take the coin and go."
Alora's black, no-nonsense eyes stared at him with patience. Gareth's shoulders rounded and he slumped forward. He'd done a lot of hard things in his life and, crazily enough, this would be the hardest. To simply turn around and put one foot in front of the other. A simple act. He'd done it instinctively all his life. Walk on back to the village. Maybe Blackmantle's. Maybe home. No, it wasn't hard at all. His hands ached from their tight clench and he shook his head. No, it wasn't hard at all.
It was impossible. He looked up and tried to give her a sweet smile that turned out to be more of a grimace and reached out to take the coins. His fingers skimmed past the offer and locked around her wrist with all the efficiency of a well planned snare.