The day had turned out sweltering. Even under the shade of the trees, the heat was heavy and Islinn felt as though it clung to every inch of her exposed skin. Her tunic was sweated to her body and she plucked at it with two fingers in an attempt to unseal it from her damp skin.
"Still better than walking." She thought as she patted the stag's sweat-slickened neck.
She ran a finger across her lower lip. It was slightly swollen and she still had the copper taste of blood in her mouth. In spite of all the times JoHan had beaten her, she still couldn't believe he'd slapped her. Shame rolled over her, an unwelcome heat added into the overall warmth of the day. She could have gone back.
Her beliefs, the rare air of ether she'd breathed and taken for granted, that inward flame, call it whatever you want, it was still there. She could feel it, peering through her eyes, and riding the emotion beneath her skin. She was still a True Believer, that was a gift she'd been given that could never be lost or given back no matter how desperately she renunciated.
But the pain. That was there too. Waiting, like some deaf and dumb animal with a mad intelligence that immersed itself throughout her being with each stroke of the whip. And Islinn, if nothing else, was a realist. The great mystery of spirituality was faith-based, and other worldly. Pain was reality-based and sudden fire. Dirt saturated with blood. Vomit and dry heaves from an agony so intense, your body continuously tried to physically sick it up. So she had chosen the easier road. Tears threatened but she was so sick and tired of crying. She shut her eyes tight in an attempt to will them away.
She was thirsty. She eyed Alora's aloof posture and felt that tired old bred-to-the-bone obedience kick in. She was afraid to ask, even though she knew the woman wouldn't deny her water. But…she hadn't quite endeared herself to The Twiceborn by slapping her earlier either. Still, the day was only going to get hotter and she'd only get thirstier.
She urged the little stag closer to Loki and had just opened her mouth to speak when the stag's head darted forward, adder-quick, and took a nip at Loki's hindquarters. Horrified, Islinn yanked the stag's head around but it was too late. Loki let out an enraged squeal and tucked his hindquarters. For a quick instant, he looked like the world's biggest dog sitting up to beg. Then he spun about, his head tucked into his chest and skittered sideways, amazingly agile for such a large animal.
Alora had been dozing. She wasn't contemplating her earlier encounter with JoHan or brooding over Islinn's slap or even trying to figure out the presence of the Hynti in Lochedge. She'd fallen victim to the soothing sound of Loki's clopping hooves and the still heat. Her eyes had just drifted closed when Loki's screech cut through her eardrums like a knife through butter.
Startled, she jerked her head up and managed to catch her balance as his hindquarters dipped. The spin and the quick jink sideways was her undoing. She never even had the chance to grab leather or mane. The ground zoomed up at a frightening speed and she landed flat on her back, spread-eagled, in the middle of the road.
Islinn sat on the stag, paralyzed. Her mouth had dropped open at the sight and she now raised one hand up and rested it against her throat. The little stag arched its neck and chortled, a sound which was, suspiciously,like a chuckle. Islinn felt a smile start to pull at one corner of her mouth. She bit her lower lip as the smile threatened to become a grin and laughter started to bubble up inside her chest.
Alora sat up and bumped into Loki's inquisitive nose as he nudged her, his black eyes filled with worry. That was all it took. Islinn burst into laughter. It felt good. It rolled through her, taking away the worry and doubt that had been a constant companion for so long. She hugged her side with a tight hand and doubled over, still laughing as tears rimmed her eyes.
Alora glared at the girl. It didn't take much for her to figure out what had happened. Loki had his affronted, wounded expression plastered across his black donkey-like face and the stag could only be described as smug. But Alora had to reluctantly admit, it was nice to see Islinn laugh. She felt her own lips start to twitch as she grabbed Loki's bridle and hauled herself to her feet. She waved a hand at Islinn.
"Thanks for your concern. No, don't worry, I'm not hurt." She stated, her own smile turning into a grin.
Islinn raised one slim hand to her mouth, still giggling.
"You should have seen yourself…Loki actually looked up to see if you were still mounted than he ran over to you like a…" Islinn weakly waved her hand as she shook her head and went off into another gale of laughter.
Alora gingerly ran a hand over a hip that felt like it was already beginning to bruise. She inwardly winced as she climbed back on Loki and gave him a consoling pat.
"I think it terrifies him to see me sprawled on the ground like that, possibly dead and unable to feed him." She commented, still smiling. Alora unhooked the water skins from the saddle and tossed one over to Islinn who caught it gratefully and took a sip. Alora wiped her forearm across her sticky face.
"We're not going to ride much further, I don't think. We're not too far outside of Naldura but we'll camp out tonight. Probably be cooler than staying in an Inn."
Islinn nodded. The tension from earlier had dissipated, something she was extremely grateful for. She tossed the water skin back and watched Alora gather up her reins.
"Keep an eye on your stag. Loki can't handle the trauma of seeing me on the ground twice in the same day." Alora winked at Islinn and gave her a quick smile as she nudged Loki into a slow canter. Islinn, in spite of everything, caught herself smiling back.