They rode together quietly and Islinn was careful not to let the stag get too close to Loki. The dark stallion kept rolling an eye in the stag's direction and neighed beseechingly from time to time to let everyone know how wronged he'd been. Islinn had to fight the urge to laugh every time he trumpeted his sorrows.
The Twiceborn rubbed his neck each time and spoke soothingly to him, a wry smile on her own lips, and Islinn found her eyes unwillingly drawn to the other woman. Here in the shade of the deep woods, and the checkered pattern of light and dark as the sun played hide and seek in the trees, Islinn took in the gentle smile on Alora's face and the softness of her touch against Loki's neck.
This was foreign territory, and the younger girl had the uneasy feeling of standing outside and peering in. Seeing what she wasn't meant to see. She frowned. She could recall many times in her life when she'd been physically frightened. But this moment was different: she was frightened for her heart. Her heart and the simple gesture of Alora's slim hand on the muscular satin of her horse's neck.
Islinn tore her eyes away and gazed resolutely off into the tree line. Someone she found abhorrent had taken a moment to smile at her and was she so truly pathetic that it meant that much? She remembered having the same sense of groveling gratefulness whenever her father would absentmindedly smile in her direction. Did she truly need so much to be willing to accept so little and call it more? She dug her heels into the stag's side and the little animal broke into a bounding gallop.
Alora nudged Loki as the stag bolted past and with an ill-tempered switch of his tail, he rolled into a gallop. Alora winced. Loki was slamming his hooves down and she could detect a tenseness in his back as he refused to settle into a more comfortable gait.
Days like this, she wished she had just a little donkey that wore a rope halter and could be guided from place to place with a thin willow switch. The path and woods had gotten a little darker and even though there was quite a bit of daylight left, Alora figured she was about ready to settle down for the day. But first, she wanted to make sure she was out of range of JoHan and his wailing band of breast-beaters.
("She has more power than you ever dreamed of.")
Alora watched Islinn as the girl rode ahead of her down the path. There was something about her. Something within her that Alora found grotesquely fascinating. Whatever it was, she had the almost overwhelming desire to physically pull it out, cut it open, and see what it was. What made it tick. What gave it its power. And how Islinn came to be the one in possession of it.
Along with this overwhelming need though was the conflicting desire to be as far from whatever it was as possible. In one raw instant Alora had saddled herself with something she had no hope of understanding but was obsessed with, nonetheless. Whatever it was, it played in the back of her mind tirelessly, and more important matters, like the Hynti and Lochedge, were nothing but an afterthought in comparison.
She tightened the reins on Loki and grimaced as he dropped from his choppy gallop into a bone-jarring trot. The hemlocks alongside the road had thinned a bit and Alora knew they would re-enter the grasslands before reaching Naldura.
She wanted to enjoy the shade a bit longer and the nice thing about being The Twiceborn was when it came to being in Lochedge… she'd be there when she got there.
She watched as Islinn handily spun the stag about in its tracks and her dark eyes took in the white blond hair and taut brown muscles clinging to the sides of the sweated stag. She held up a hand and pointed off the trail and, without a word, turned Loki and headed into the treeline.
The hemlocks rose to dizzying heights and heathberries and heatherbells sprouted from the darkly fertile earth, their scent pristine. Alora found a small clearing and swung stiffly out of the saddle.
She was feeling a bit worse for wear. The anvil chorus had started up again inside her head and she'd been breathing out of only one nostril since she'd ridden out of Leomedon. The fall from Loki had been icing on the cake at that point. He was a big horse; she was aware of that fact every time she climbed on him. But of course, you never realize how big a horse truly is until you fell off.
Loki turned his head and bumped her hard in the back, slamming her into the saddle like a ragdoll.
"You black bastard." She muttered as she turned and glared at him.
He glared back reproachfully and pinned his ears at her. Islinn rode into the clearing and looked about dubiously.
"It isn't very far from the road." She remarked. "Don't you worry about thieves?"
"No. The thieves worry about me." Alora stated, her words short.
She was irritable and snappish and Islinn was as good a target as any. Whatever it was about the girl had burrowed under her skin and turned into one big unreachable itch that she was at a loss to explain, much less understand. Alora held out Loki's reins.
"Here. Unsaddle him and walk him a bit to cool him off. Get some grass and rub him and that stag down when you're done. And take his bridle off, he won't go anywhere."
Islinn looked at her tentatively than glanced at the proffered reins.
"You belong to me, right? Earn your keep. I'll gather wood." Alora snapped and watched as Islinn tightened her jaw then gave her that one servile nod she'd learned from being kept under Behrin's thumb. Furious and not quite knowing why, Alora stomped off into the woods.