Sar stopped and stared at Gareth. To him, the boy had always been a nuisance, a cut-out of every possible annoyance. Here was the boy who'd bragged about having the best crops come harvest then forgot to plow a terrace into the hill. All the water had run off his fields like rain off a rooftop, leaving him high and very dry.
The same boy who'd purchased a massive bull, then proceeded to build a fence that wouldn't hold in a crippled chicken.
The same boy all his daughters had been madly in love with.
Sar saw all of this and found it hard to believe he'd never see it again. The cocky walk, the arrogant tilt of his chin, everything that made him Gareth, all that motion and movement gone. Reduced to being moved only by the will of mindless animals looking for food. Sar's hold on sanity slipped. Gareth was right there, a few steps in front of him, but there was something gone, something away in his still posture.
Sar knew the boy had gone far beyond Gandoura.
Gone beyond the reach of Sar's imagination to a place many wouldn't arrive at or think of for countless days, couldn't ride to mounted on the quickest of horses, and couldn't see standing on the highest of mountains, Gareth had gone from "what is" to "what is not" too fast for Sar's stunned eyes and all he could do was stare and stare and stare.
Alora watched Sar warily as he took in the sight of Gareth's body.
"Why?" Sar turned and his haunted eyes burned across her face. She turned away.
"He came out here and I told him to leave. He wouldn't." Alora shrugged.
She tossed back hair as she walked over and picked up her leggings and as she pulled them on she felt better able to defend herself against Sar's anger. Her fingers fumbled over the familiar ties. Usually she relished this kind of confrontation, it was nothing more than meat and drink for her, but Gandoura had turned into one big giant Pandora's box and she wanted nothing more than to just be done with it. Sar's indignation at her simple excuse hung heavy in the air.
Sar watched Alora dress, horrified by the simple explanation. It was the type of answer more suited to one of his daughters when asked why she'd slapped an amorous suitor. It didn't go with this butchery yet blended well with the roar of the fire and the starlit night. For an instant, he wondered if they were both talking about the same incident. He studied her as she completed dressing and went to stand by the fire. "What a pretty animal she is." He thought bleakly. He walked over to Gareth and knelt down.He took in the glassy eyes and pallor. Read the years of his life in every drop of blood. Every smudge of dirt.
"You didn't have to kill him." He said, his voice low.
"What part of this are you not understanding??" Alora snapped and glared at him, hot-eyed and contemptuous. Her anger was back and, in that instant, she wanted nothing more than to slap the look of righteous fury off his face.
"He was dead the moment he left the village. You're the only one guaranteed safety because you asked for my services and paid me the coin!"
Sar had never heard someone go to such lengths to point a finger somewhere else. He got to his feet, furious, and walked towards her. Part of him recoiled at the indignant approach but the other side of him, the one that recognized Gareth had simply ceased to exist because of her, reached out and grabbed her arm. He spun her around until they stood face to face.
"What are you saying?? This isn't your fault??" He hissed, and gave her a quick shake. "It's all your fault you lying bitch! All. Your. Fault." He emphasized each word with a shake. He hoped she'd struggle. He wanted her to so he could justify wrapping his fingers around her neck and squeezing out what little bit of life she possessed.
Instead of pulling away, Alora stepped forward, and thrust her face into his until they were almost nose to nose. Surprise stole the edge off his anger.
"Well,this is a hell of a note." He thought, startled. He realized, with dismay, that she was balanced on the tips of her toes in an effort to bring herself to eye level.
"You get what you pay for,Sar." Her whisper was filled with rage. "If you want to rip me a new asshole, I suggest you drop your own pants. Everybody knows what I am. But you're the one who paid me to be here. Now let go!"
The words rammed home like a well-placed blade and twisted his heart. He thrust her away with an inarticulate bellow. She stumbled and fell, her hands catching in the cool grass. She watched him, her black eyes sly.
Slowly, bit by bit, Sar reeled in his anger as her words echoed inside his head. He swung around and stared at Gareth, his gruesome responsibility, and thought with dawning horror: You own what you buy.
"You own what you buy." Alora repeated softly and he whirled about. The vocal parroting of his thoughts spurred his fear towards a place that even Gareth's pallid hands couldn't reach and his heart did a crazy stutter-step before it picked up its regular beat with an awful reluctance.
"She read my mind." He thought, unable to take his eyes from her. But that didn't matter. It was Gareth he had to think of. Sar closed his eyes. He wondered how everything had managed to careen so quickly out of control. He'd called her to protect the people he'd been forced to lead and now he had a casualty before the battle even started.
Sar opened his eyes and, once again, looked sadly at Gareth. He'd take him back to the village and make sure he had a decent burial. He'd find a good priest. He'd comfort his daughters. He'd shoulder the blame. He'd apologize for everything even though it would be too little, too late. And he'd learn. Gareth's unblinking eyes rebuked him as they reflected back the night.
Oh yes, he would learn that responsibility was the most powerful of all the forces combined. Even stronger than love. Because even though love was one biting dog, responsibility was the rope that held it.
She was still watching him and he gave her a sad, bemused smile as he held out a hand to help her up.
"You have a filthy mouth. If one of my daughters spoke to me like that she would have gotten a good dose of hickory oil."
Alora ignored the hand and got to her feet. She dusted off the back of her leggings in silence. A row of bruises, like small black stones, marched uniformly up the inside of each arm.
"Good thing I'm not your daughter. Wouldn't that just be the mother of fuck-ups?" She replied.
Sar winced at her choice of words. He decided he wouldn't dignify that with an answer. He was slowly getting back his sense of place and that was all alone, in the dark, with a corpse and The Twiceborn. His eyes were drawn to the bruises (For the love of Brede, they'd come up fast!) made by his own hands. He suddenly felt faint. " Gareth." he reminded himself.
"Okay. Perhaps you're right about Gareth."
Alora didn't reply; only tossed back hair and moved closer to the fire. He studied her, half-confused and half-exasperated. How in the hell could anyone be so thick-skinned about killing someone? Fresh terror rolled through him. She could take the wind out of him as easily as she had Gareth and not blink an eye.
"I'll take my share of the blame and we'll call it even, all right? But…what I paid you..I'll need it back."
He gave her a quick, sidelong glance and tried to gauge her reaction.
"He deserves a decent burial and a good priest to bless him."
"A good priest?" Alora's brows shot up. "For ten gold pieces you should be able to get one that's gilt-edged and pisses nothing but holy water."
Sar gaped at her. It took a few moments for her words to sink in. When they did, Sar wanted to step away from her much like his men had done him earlier.
"That's blasphemy!" He choked, his face pale in the dancing firelight.
"That's honesty." She retorted.
She started to say something else but stopped as the wind gusted through the trees, pushing something before it. Sar turned, and strained his eyes to see into the underbrush. He'd been looking into the fire and as he squinted into the dark, all he could make out were red, smeary flames that faded in and out with each eye blink. He scrubbed his eyes with one hand and glanced at her. Her expression hadn't changed but her entire face lit up with a dark anticipation. Something cold pressed against his heart.