Ch. IV: Three's Company

          The morning came too soon.  I felt I had barely gotten to sleep when Brannagh started shaking me awake.

          "Come on, Saoirse," she chirped.  I hated that- the only creatures that should be so bright and chirpy in the morning were birds, but she was always Miss Sunshine at dawn.

          "Go 'way, Brannagh," I slurred, my country accent coming back to me a bit in my drowsiness.  "I'll send you to the milkin' stool if you don' away."  I rolled over, clutching my- bedroll?

          I sat up, the events of the previous day coming back to me.  This was not my bedroom.  My bedroom didn't smell like horses, and my bed was not so hard as the ground.  I groaned in disappointment. 

          "'Twas no dream," Ardon said with a much too awake laugh, guessing my thoughts once again.  He was already up and moving, his bedroll tied up and atop a pack on his back.

          "I see we have more things for us to later pay for," I grumbled.  Brannagh had a pack too, and there was one beside me with a change of clothes and some shoes atop it.

          She had already changed into the provided garments, and so had he.  She was wearing loose breeches in a light brown colour with a red sash around her waist matching another smaller one in her hair.  She also wore a full sleeved white blouse with some lacing at the top tied in a loose bow.  Her boots were dark brown leather that came halfway up her calves and had a thick sole that looked like it would last quite a while.  I hoped that didn't mean we were going to be walking for weeks.

          Ardon was wearing loose breeches as well, but his were a soft grey.  He had a black belt and black boots in a similar style to his sisters, and his shirt was a more masculine version of hers, lacking the lace to close the V at his neck that was exposing some muscle.  I tore my eyes away and turned to his sister.

          "I have to wear breeches?" I asked softly, my eyes wide.  She nodded, a slight smile on her face.  I sighed.  "Where do I change?"

          "See, that's the fun part.  Apparently half-horse people don't really attend to feelings of modesty, so they all just change out in the open- but," she said when my eyes began to look frantic.  "We can hold up blankets for you, and Ardon promises not to peek."

          He winked at me and I flushed to the roots of my hair, I could feel it.  "Don' worry, Saoirse, I'll keep my back to you," he chuckled.  They picked up my bedroll and Brannagh's and made a little circle of cover for me.  When I was sure I was safe I began to undress.

          "Shirt?" I asked.  Brannagh lifted up something much too small to be a blouse and handed it over the edge of the blankets.

          "You need this first," she said.  "Buttons in front.  It goes under the shirt, for," she paused to giggle and I understood.  I took the thick garment from her and looked it over.  It had two thin straps and looked like a bandage with buttons.  I undid them and pulled it on like the most absurd jacket.  I buttoned it up and asked for the shirt again.  She passed it over the top and I dressed and asked for breeches.  "Well, this goes first, too," she said, giggling again.  She passed over a pair of shorter breeches, much shorter breeches that were very snug and very improper, almost like leggings without really covering much leg.

          Of course, I was very aware of how exposed I was and couldn't help glancing at the top of Ardon's head, making sure he couldn't see.

          "Breeches!" I said again, hoping for no more surprises.  She tossed over deep blue breeches that came about halfway down my calf.  Once I had those on, Brannagh dropped her bedroll and started rolling it up.  Ardon laid mine back out so I could sit on it and pull my stockings and boots up.  "Don't look," I warned, covering my ankles and remaining bare calves as quickly as I could.  I pulled the black boots that were provided onto my feet and stood, holding up my breeches.  "Sash?" I asked.  She chuckled and tossed me a black sash to hold them up.  I threaded it through the loops and tried to tie it.  While she rolled her eyes and assisted me in tying, I grew suspicious about how well everything seemed to fit.

          "How did they know what sizes to give us?" I asked, rubbing my wrist as I worried.

          "I'm your maid, silly," she replied, finishing with the sash and trying to attend to my hair.  "I know your size better than my own.  And of course I know my brother's as well, since I sew for him.  I woke up and Aloysius asked, so I told him and he brought these for us.  Isn't he kind?"  She gave up trying to get a black ribbon to hold up my mass of curls and tied it around my wrist.

          I glanced at Ardon.  Usually he was happy through anything.  He lived by 'don' worry about what you can' do anythin' about,' but he seemed to be making an exception this time.  "Yes, kind," he murmured, a tiny frown on his face.  He glanced at me, too and back to his pleased sister.  His frown immediately turned to a smile so he wouldn't worry her.  "Very kind, Brannagh, now why don' we go find our new friend so we know what's goin' on?"  He turned to go and we followed him, slipping through the busy caravan and the horse-men and women as we made our way toward Aloysius.

          I was walking behind them blindly, of course.  I couldn't see over the people here, so I grabbed Brannagh's hand as we wound through them in hopes of not getting lost.  We found Aloysius at the edge of the herd talking with his brother in Latin again.  They seemed to be arguing, but when they saw us approaching, their faces smoothed and they came over.

          "I take it everything fits?" Aloysius asked, looking us over.  "If you are ready, we can head to Hybris."  He held out a bag and Ardon took it.  "It's breakfast- we can eat on the way."

          "Thank you," we all said, following him.  Ardon pulled out a few golden apples and handed them to us.

          Aloysius didn't seem to be following any trail.  He led us out of the clearing and through the tall blue-green grass beside the forest as he and the twins talked.  I followed silently behind them wrapped up in my own thoughts.  The horse-man had mentioned payment once, when he gave us the bedrolls, but I was sure he hadn't forgotten.  I was sure he also meant for us to pay for these clothes, the food, the packs.  It worried me.  I remembered my mother telling me that nothing is free when I was small and we were poor.  I remembered my father telling me that debt was a sin, but most of all I remembered the casual manner in which Aloysius told us that we could work out payment later.

          I didn't trust him.

          We walked all morning through the long grass.  The suns were high in the sky and there was a road in view by the time we stopped for lunch.

          "We will break here," the horse-man said.  "After lunch we will take to the road.  It will be two more days to the town of the Magi at the pace we're going, but the road is safe and I am not worried."

          "Thank you for all your help," Brannagh said, an unworried smile on her face.  "We probably would have wandered through those woods for weeks without your help."

          Aloysius smiled back at her.  "It was very fortunate indeed, for both of us.  This will be an interesting week for me."

          I wanted to run, I don't know why.  I knew we could never outrun him even if we tried, and I had no reason to want to flee in the first place.  I put the cheese, bread, and dried meat I couldn't stomach for worry back into my pack and stood with the rest of them as they finished their lunch and took to the road.

          The next two days were slow for me, but uneventful.  I felt so tense that when we finally saw the town on the horizon I wanted to run as fast as I could to get there, even though I knew it would be a few hours, still.  Aloysius insisted on one last stop before we continued, and I almost screamed with frustration.  Instead, I bit my lip and kept my silence of the last few days.

          The horse-man handed us golden apples from his pack again and folded his legs under him.  "I just need to rest a minute," he said with an apologetic smile.

          I didn't believe him for a second, but I sat next to Brannagh anyway and took a vicious bite of the apple he had given me.

          We should have run screaming when we had the chance.

The End

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