I don’t smell, I just exude awesome

And, anyway, you wouldn’t understand. You’re a horse.

part of the Slayer of the Last Dragon

****

Chapter 2

In two days time, Ari finds Gewitter by a stream a little north. Apparently, the message back to the employer had come loud and clear because the response had been remarkably loud and clear. Ari had the pleasure of playing hide and seek with at least thirty men trying to kill her over the past two days. It was fun at first—Ari constantly had the upper hand. Then it became less fun when she was worn ragged, hungry, cold, dirty, tired, and irritable. At one point she had raised her hands and told them to end it all. She then lit them on fire with a thought—which tired her out more and she actually passed out—because, as not fun as it was, she was very partial to living. Ari has decided that only sleeping is fun and that is an all too rare commodity these days.

Gewitter lifts his head from the mountain stream, the thick trees making his coat darker than it normally appears. “I hate people,” Ari says irritably, sitting in the shallow creek so that she can move again. Mud had dried in her clothes and had made everything difficult. She picked at the clumps that broke away, flicking the water at odd intervals. “I want to be a hermit.”

Gewitter makes an amused noise and circles behind her. He drinks from upstream.

“But someone must have put money on my head,” Ari says angrily. “If it’s those damned Drows, I swear to god—“ Gewitter nudges her back, stop whining the  gesture seems to say. Actually, knowing the horse, it probably does. “But yea, someone did something and now SOMEBODY really wants me dead. And I can’t stay in a town long enough to find out who.” The last part is shouted and sends a flock of sparrows into the air.

Ari falls backwards into the stream, causing Gewitter to move even further up it. The sky is a dizzying blue in the fall by the mountains. The leaves are hinting towards gold, but refuse to change just yet. There will be rain in three days—Ari can smell it. It smells of dirt, too. Everything smells like dirt and Ari just wants a nice, warm bath.

“I’m hungry.” Ari says without moving.

When night falls, it does a magnificent job of falling. Just before, Ari is enjoying the dappled sunlight. She is languishing in the creek, stretching like a cat at intervals. There is birdsong in the trees. The smell of dirt has given way to Mountain Laurel and sweat; the latter of the two she strongly suspects belongs to her alone. Gewitter is standing in the shade of a tree, resting. It’s a glorious evening, warm with a cool breeze, when it becomes suddenly very chill and very dark. ‘Nightfall’ is a  very apt metaphor this far west.

Ari blinks a few times until her eyes adjust. They do a poor job of adjusting, but she still manages to see the lights in the skies. Stars burst through the dark blue. The moon is dark, new and hiding by the horizon. “We need to move,” Ari says to Gewitter. He paws at the ground. He paces around his master. Then he gives up when Ari clearly isn’t moving. “I said we need to move, not that we’re about to.” The bedraggled mercenary clarifies.

When a branch snaps nearby and honeysuckle overtakes the scent of Mountain Laurel, however, Ari is scrambling madly atop Gewitter, barely fitting the bridle on properly in time. The two burst through the woods as the Fair Folk begin their dance; any unfortunate individual near their circle will fall under their spell and be eaten. Ari prides herself on not having been eaten so far. Gewitter still has a scar on his rump from a less than pleasant evening years before.

The woods open up to the base of the foothills. Little villages can be seen from the crest of the hill, like fireflies flickering in the distance. The Noble—a Duke or Lord or some other title—has his house situated the furthest east. It’s a god-ugly looking stone thing (a manor will not be degraded to such a building). More than likely it’s been rebuilt so often from Mordren attacks that the builders forgot what the original building looked like and just put stones in the holes. Maybe once it was beautiful—before the Great War and the Silent War and other aptly named wars that have ravaged Aldernon for eons—but it is terribly ugly now.

Ari points Gewitter to the hamlet that sits just southwest of the Noble’s Rubble-Pile. The town is all wooden—not as well off as the one she had last eaten at—and there are well tended farms surrounding it. No one is on the streets when Ari passes through the rudimentary gates. No watchman shouts at her to state her purpose. No Royal Guard watches her from the lees of the stilted buildings. The dirt road is tender under Gewitter’s hooves. It solidifies near the center well, stones shoved into the ground so that the well won’t topple.

The wooden bucket smells like Cedar. The rope is old, almost ragged, and refuses to be lowered with ease. The water, despite the poverty of the town, is cold and clear. Ari offers Gewitter some. He drinks from the bucket noisily, bumping his nose on the bottom when he reaches the end of it. Ari tosses the dregs onto the road. No need to subject anyone but herself to Gewitter’s slobber.

Finding an inn proves to be a trick. Everything is shuttered. Everything is closed. On one hand this gives Ari the heebie jeebies, but on the other it restores her faith in the intelligence of the overall town. If there are Faerie this close, she’s willing to bet other unnatural beasties are nearby. Granted the Sidhe keep to their mounds and circles, but where there are Sidhe there are Shadow Crawlers and Brownies.

“The Carriage House” is the only place with a light on. The door is heavy and closed, so Ari has to pound her hand against it to produce any noticeable sound. Eventually the door opens with a frazzled man, glasses askew and pipe hanging from his mouth, and a knife staring her in the face. “You human?” he asks around the pipe, saliva escaping the corner of his mouth. It disappears into his scraggly beard.

“Yes.” Ari says, deciding that if she’s half human then she is technically human in some known universe. “May I have a room? And do you have a stable for my horse?”

The man sizes her up. “They’re looking for you,” he says, finally. He pulls the pipe from his mouth and smacks his chapped lips. Ari finally notices that he’s wearing a robe and his feet are bare.

“I know they’re looking for me—I’ll be out by tomorrow. I don’t cause trouble; I just want to sleep.”

He grimaces at her and then stands to the side. “You can come in.” Then he turns and shouts into the house “CLARICE!” A little girl with bright blond hair and dewy green eyes comes scrambling over. “Put the Miss’ horse in the stable.” The girl bobs her head and Ari barely finds a moment to slip a coin into the girl’s hand.

“Take care of him,” Ari warns. The girl nods and leads Gewitter into the dark night.

The man walks into the Inn, between the tables crowding the floor and pushed against the walls. Chairs are all over the place and there’s a target on one wall, with throwing knives embedded around it. The bar is straight ahead with a meager offering covered in dust behind it. A bar stool is pushed to the side, facing the fire place.

The fire is low and flames lick out of dying embers. It casts the room in a warm glow. Ari can feel warmth returning that she hadn’t known she had lost. Disrupting her revelry in the warmth, the man points to a staircase past the fireplace and target; the stairs are hidden in the corner and completely dark. “You can have the second room on your left. It’s 35 geld a night.”

Ari whistles. “Must be a pretty nice place.”

“You don’t pay,” the man says seriously, “I’ll tell the men looking for you that you’re here.”

“And I’d be more than happy to pay 35 geld to stay here.”

Ari smiles at the small man, slightly worried and wishing she could have seen Gewitter to the stable. It’s odd that the man knows she’s on the run and he’s letting her stay. Oh well, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. And, since she’s pretty sure she can escape or beat this guy if necessary, might as well push her luck since finally (finally) she has a chance to ask. “By the way,” she says, cocking her head; “These men who are after me, you know them?”

“Rumor has it they’re mercs like you.” He says, retaking his seat and popping his pipe in his mouth. “You pissed some guy off up north.”

Ari pulls a face. She pisses some guy off daily. Generally they’re other mercs and it’s just part of the job description. Unless of course you’re Jameson of House Tull. She groans. Honestly, she had thought it would have blown over by now—that it had blown over already—but apparently Jameson had simply been fermenting. Take the Duke of Sturm, next in line to the crown of Weiss, to take her antics too personally. Somebody’s throne must be very uncomfortable or he’s a rare breed of grumpy-saurus. It’s not like the Dragon Egg was his after all. Sure it didn’t really belong to the Walden Elves, but it didn’t belong to him either.

“The egg didn’t even hatch,” she says in her defense, crossing her arms. “It can never hatch; he’s chasing ghosts.”

The innkeeper frowns. Then he takes up a sardonic expression: “The Weissens have always been known for their tempers.”

“And a lot less for their mercy,” Ari concludes miserably. She can bet she’ll find no relief soon unless Jameson drops dead, which can be arranged, she thinks gleefully. Then she looks at herself—half starved, exhausted to the bone, and running on alcohol fumes. Alright, maybe it has to be arranged later. “Is there any way I can rummage up some food—I promise to pay.”

The Innkeeper shrugs. “If you can find your way to the kitchen.”

Ari smiles, “Thank you.”

The kitchen, indeed, was tough to find. Ari walked into the bathroom first. Then she walked into a door to nowhere, which are much more common than one might think. In fact, they might very well be in vogue. Ari wouldn’t know; she only cares about quarrels, not the most popular color of drapes. At the very back was the kitchen and it became extremely obvious that they just tacked the kitchen on, probably so the main Inn could be larger. It seemed odd for such a forlorn town, but the food was good—not totally spoiled—so Ari could care less about their business or lack thereof.

After eating some cold chicken, bread, and lukewarm stew; Ari decided to add the money to her bill at the end rather than disturb the Innkeeper. Her decision was a good one since the Innkeeper had long abandoned his post and Ari navigated the dark to her room, the second on the left, alone.

When the door shut behind her, Ari snaps her fingers and a small, blue flame ignites in her palm. Her back itches something fierce. Black threads run under the skin of her hand and knot at her wrist. She feels the change around her eyes and rubs at them. It would do her no good to accidentally shift here, not when she’s too tired to maintain any self control.

The light goes out.

Ari settles for the floor because she’s sure the bed is full of bugs and she can’t risk magicking them away. She strips herself of her leather jerkin and loose shirt. She sleeps in her undershirt and knickers, curling in the cold but very happy to not be wearing soiled clothes. She’ll have to ask about a bath tomorrow. Then she’ll leave to anywhere-but-here. Like usual.

It’s a bad sleep, an awkward sleep, that night, but no dreams come to her. She hasn’t dreamed in years, but she’s still frightened of their return. There’s only so many times you can watch your parents die and keep your sanity.

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