Islinn watched her go, a quizzical expression on her face. An uneasiness tugged at her and she turned and quickly picked up Loki's reins so she wouldn't delve into the feeling any deeper. Still, it hovered on the surface of her consciousness and she was relieved Alora had gone into the woods to hunt for kindling and left her to her own devices.
She took the saddlebags off of Loki and propped them against a tree then proceeded to loosen the cinch of the saddle. She didn't understand why Alora had such a hard time with the horse. He was very willing to please and stood like a statue as she pulled the saddle from his back. She set the saddle down next to the saddlebags and snatched up a handful of grass. She rubbed the big black horse down and giggled as he lowered his head for her to scratch behind his ears.
"What a beautiful animal." She thought as she led him out to the road and back. He walked slowly beside her, careful not to bump her or step on her. She led him back and forth several times, enjoying the opportunity to walk and work out some of the stiffness from riding. The stag eyed the procession and grunted a protest. Islinn had made sure she'd secured the stag to a low-hanging branch. It had only taken chasing her father's stag down once for her to learn never to leave the beasts loosely tied.
Islinn took Loki's bridle off, and smiled at the way the stallion lowered his head for her to slip the leather off from behind his ears. What a sweetheart he was. She went over to the little stag, who stamped a hoof in greeting, and began the same ritual all over again. The stag danced alongside her as she led it back and forth along the same path she'd walked Loki.
She eyed Alora silently as the other woman walked into the middle of the small clearing and dropped a bundle of mismatched branches beside a cluster of bushes. As Islinn watched, the other woman walked over and seated herself against the trunk of a hemlock tree. She leaned her head back against the bark and closed her eyes. Islinn felt a twinge of compassion. She looked so tired. And so young.
Islinn re-tied the stag back up. She cautiously approached Alora and squatted down beside her.
"Do you have a flint?"
Alora's head was pounding. She opened one eye and peered at Islinn than waved a lackadaisical hand towards her saddlebags.
"Yeah. Just give me a little bit, my head really hurts right now. I'll get it."
"I can get it. Just stay where you are, I'll set up camp."
Alora now opened both eyes and stared at the girl. She didn't understand why the girl would offer. She gave Islinn a tight, humorless smile.
"Contrary to popular belief, I don't carry anything of value in my packs. No imp ears. No evil toenails."
"Well, that's good to know." Islinn gave her a tight smile. "But all I care about is a flint."
Alora studied the girl for a long moment. That was the thing about traveling with someone; you couldn't watch your stuff forever. Sooner or later, everything she owned would be pawed through, regardless. Her whole life on display.
"Yeah. There's a flint. " Alora conceded. She re-closed her eyes and propped herself back against the tree. "Should be a jar with some oiled leather too. Firestarter."
Alora wanted to care…knew she should…but to get up and dig through her bag and set up camp didn't seem as important as staying right where she was.
Islinn looked at her for a few more moments than stood up and went over to the saddlebags. She found the flint and the jar easily enough and then, with a sideways glance at Alora, opened some of the cloth-wrapped objects tucked in every crevice and corner. She came to the conclusion that the stable boy might have meant well when he bought supplies but he was clueless as to what was truly needed for travel.
Up near the main road, Islinn found some decent stones that she lugged back to the campsite. She cleared an area, set up a fire ring, and soon had a small blaze going. Alora appeared to have dozed off, so Islinn took the opportunity to go and forage through the woods to make up for the inadequate supplies. On her hands and knees in the dark soil beneath the canopy of trees, she suddenly realized that she was completely alone for the first time in years. She looked around and listened to the silence.
It reminded her of home. Of the still, hushed mornings when she was the only one, animal or human, up and moving about. She picked up some of the dark loamy earth in her hand and let it trickle through her fingers. Everything around her felt like a living, breathing, parallel force. The reaching, grasping hand of the earth beckoning to be filled with her own. At times, she felt so close and so intimate to the soil, the sky, that to lie back in the glistening dew of the grass was nothing less than a completion of a journey instinctively dreamed of in her mother's womb. And what a journey it had been.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Here in the still silence of the forest, it was more of a sweet memory than a bitter one and she welcomed the familiarity of the heavy, rich scent of the soil. She searched and dug until she was satisfied with her finds then headed back to camp. The fire blazed merrily and Loki whickered a greeting as she entered the clearing. Islinn saw that Alora had lay down by the tree and was still snoozing away. She smiled. Devilspawn or not, she was still easier to be around than Behrin, whose wolfish stares followed her every movement.
She dug through the saddlebags once again until she found an oddly marked dagger tucked away in a side pocket. She proceeded to chop and dice and was happily absorbed in her task when she felt the peculiar sense of being watched. She glanced over and saw Alora staring at her. Quickly,she scraped all of her cuttings into her hand and dumped them in the cookpot she'd positioned in the wood embers of the fire. She stilled, for no particular reason, and waited to see if the woman was going to speak to her or not.
Alora had woken up with a start. She'd never just ridden off the road and propped herself under a tree and sacked out. If she started making it a habit, she wouldn't be long for this world. She supposed it would be a pretty easy matter for some peasant to come along and stake her ears to the ground while she was laying in the bushes snoring away.
Loki would have kicked up a fuss though if any strangers had come into the camp. Her eyes narrowed a bit. And it was a camp. A fire blazed away in a fire ring and her battered cook pot was nestled down in glowing wood coals. Both animals had been unsaddled and groomed and a ration of grain was piled on the ground near each beast.
Alora slowly got to her feet and couldn't help but smile. She hadn't had anyone do anything like this since she'd left her Clan and she had to admit, reluctantly, she could get used to it. Islinn approached her and thrust out a small mug filled with a steaming liquid. Alora looked at it dubiously.
"It's white willow tea. It was in your saddlebags, don't look at it like you've never seen it before." Islinn said, with a raised brow. Alora took the mug and sat down by the fire.
"I look at it like I've never seen it before because I've never seen it before. Duran always purchases tons of crap and I usually have no idea what it is." Alora took a sip and wrinkled her nose. "It's a little bitter. But sweet."
Islinn took a sip from her own mug and sat down across from the fire.
"It'll help with the bruising on your face. And some of the pain. Duran packed quite a bit of stuff, enough for two people, but it's a lot of odds and ends."
Alora sipped the steaming liquid and felt absurdly grateful for the attention. She jutted her chin at the cook pot.
"What did you find to fix?"
"Not much out of your saddlebags, that's for sure. But I was able to find some tubers, some wild mushrooms, a bit of pigtopper root, and I even found some lambstrands under the berani bushes over there."
Alora held up a hand, clearly confused.
"And…all of that…is food?"
"What do you eat when you're by yourself??" Islinn inquired, her eyes curious.
Alora shrugged and took another sip of tea. The flavor wasn't so bad once you got used to it. And she had to admit, she did feel better.
"I buy stuff along the way, usually. Dried…stuff. I think I still have some dried fish in my bags somewhere."
"Ahh…that's what that was." Islinn's tone was carefully measured.
She got up and carefully pulled the small cookpot out of the wood coals. Popping the top off, she peered inside and nodded with satisfaction. She quickly dished up a bowl and brought it over to Alora. Alora breathed in the deep, earthly scent of the mushrooms and a delicate peppery aroma she couldn't quite identify. She dug in eagerly and resisted the urge to groan after the first bite. It had a rich meaty taste, a little salty, with an exquisite buttery texture. Alora caught the delicate sweetness of almonds and berries as well.
"My god…where did you learn how to make this?"
Islinn ducked her head but not before Alora saw a slight smile.
"Traveling with JoHan. We slept outside a lot. All of us could turn out a good camp."
Alora took several more bites than stopped.
"Aren't you eating?" She asked.
"What? Why are you aski…" Alora stopped. She set her bowl aside, her appetite gone.
"Islinn, you and I need to get something straight here." She began slowly. "Yes, I paid coin for you but I don't own you. I don't believe in people owning other people. You don't have to ask my permission to eat food, for gods' sakes."
Alora ran an aggravated hand through her dark hair as she became more and more irritated at the thought. Islinn sat quietly and watched her.
"Is that how it worked? With Behrin? Any time you wanted something to eat or drink, you had to ask?" Alora demanded. Islinn was silent.
"Yes. That's how it worked. "Islinn quietly replied. "Behrin would set a plate down for me when it pleased him to do so."
"Set a plate down?" Alora stared at the younger girl, her expression a mixture of fascination and revulsion. Islinn looked down.
"Yes. I ate off of a plate he set on the ground by his chair when we were at his settlement. Any more questions?" Islinn's voice was soft with an undertone of steel. Alora shifted uncomfortably.
"You're not my slave, Islinn. I'm not going to set a plate in the dirt for you to eat. If you're hungry, get yourself some food." Alora's voice was pained and she struggled to maintain a calm tone. It was obvious that Islinn thought her anger was directed at her instead of Behrin and Alora was at a loss as to how to make the younger girl understand the difference.