" Spare me the sad tale. Let's set our dealings straight: I have no pity for you. Ten gold pieces. If you don't have this, I'll ride on."
Sar flushed a deep purple at the sound of her matter-of-fact tone. For all she cared she could have been discussing the price of grain or the recent spate of rain they'd had. He looked down. Her nonchalance burned his skin like a brand. His men had tried to warn him but he wouldn't listen. He couldn't ride against Lese without knowing if he would live or die and the woman before him knew the answer. She carried it snug and warm in a cocoon wrapped around her black heart. For a price.
Sar knew her history and had hoped for compassion but his friends had warned him and warned him well. She was Death mounted and, if the whispered stories were true, quick enough and eager enough to introduce all of them to her own particular hell. Shame rose up in him. He knew he'd pay her price. Over his concern for his hidden daughters, his loss of crops and talk of honor, was fear.
"Afraid, Sar?" The half-whisper tickled the hairs on his neck. "Afraid if my news to you is bad, you're lost? Maybe afraid the sickness in the pit of your stomach could actually get worse by what I might see?"
While he'd been looking down at the ground in embarrassment, she'd taken the opportunity to lean forward in her saddle and put her face just inches from his own and he staggered back,swallowing a scream. She'd locked eyes with him for a moment and he'd felt a scabrous nail tap the windows of his soul. A half smile curved her lips but this was a game he didn't want to play.
"I'll pay your price but not because I'm afraid. I need to guarantee the safety of my men." The voice was weak,mewling, and it took a moment for him to recognize it as his own. She knows I'm lying he thought and his face reddened even more. Goosebumps rippled his flesh like dirty white pebbles. "I don't relish bloodshed and its more than just my blood that will be spilled. That's why I have to know." He looked up at her as she remained silent and stroked her horse's neck.
"It's okay,Sar. I'm scared sometimes too." She said softly. In that moment he saw her , saw her true face, the one behind the facade everyone had. The one hidden away with the fear that it was too fragile for everyday use. It was a face of innocence yet one guarded well by a jackal of a wild nature and he felt a strange pity twist his heart. He blinked and the moment was gone.
A sharp tip dug into his throat, dimpling the pasty flesh, and he realized,with a start, that she'd pulled her sword and leveled it against his skin. The tip held a contained fire, hot and cold, and Sar knew, inexplicably, that a breath more of pressure would be like a thousand wasps finding a home in his flesh. But what truly frightened him was he hadn't seen her unsheathe the blade. Judging by the frightened silence around him, he knew his men hadn't seen it either.
"Tell your men to get back from my horse."
She didn't bother to glance at the crowd; she had eyes only for him. He waved an anxious hand and they fell back reluctantly. A bitter chuckle almost escaped through his dry lips as he read their expressions. No one had been brave enough to speak up when she rode into town but, just like an accident, they were more than happy to stand by and watch. In an instant he knew Gandoura was lost, regardless of the Twiceborn. Never mind all the displayed rage and talk of honor and honor lost. The town was as good as gone. He looked at the men, wondering how in the name of Brede he'd come from farming to being some sort of ragtag warlord leading a bunch that reminded him more of weasels in a hen house than swordsmen. His war helmet suddenly took on the weight of stone.
"They're like me." He thought, running a tired hand through his thinning hair. "Farmers too tired to run anymore. Think courage is getting yourself killed." On closer study he was reminded of children playing dress-up and his sadly amused eyes took in the homemade armor and the weapons consisting of anything heavy and convenient. He was horrified to feel his eyes brim with tears.
"And where do I lead them? And why must it be me?"
The thoughts filled him with a lonesome, mournful sense of something far beyond any control he could muster. He realized he couldn't do it. He was afraid.
One of the men in the group stepped forward and Sar was so surprised he wondered briefly if his thoughts had been desperate enough to give themselves sound. He recognized the man immediately, a young kid called Gareth who owned a small croft and spent a lot of time drinking and yanking on the devil's tail. Sar had forgotten more about farming than the boy would ever learn but he didn't care because his shame piped up and said, "Here's somebody to take my place!"
Sar watched him approach with a critical eye. At least he'd had the sense not to wrap himself in heavy, sweat-producing material like some of the others in the belief it would help deflect a sword blow. They'd pass out from the heat long before reaching Lese, their brains simmering in their swaddled heads like a dinner stew. Wild, braying laughter clawed at Sar's throat and he held it back only through supreme effort.
"Children playing dress-up, nothing but children playing dress-up..." raced nastily around the confines of his head.
Sar was amazed when Gareth stopped in front of him, dug through his pockets , then held out some coins.
"Take this, Sar." Gareth flicked a glance towards the mounted woman, his eyes amused. " I was going to use it for crops and a new plow but you know how much I like a good show."
That crazy laughter bubbled against the back of Sar's tongue and he pursed his lips in a thin, solitary line. "He called what she does a show" he thought, each word pausing inside his head and giving the unspoken sentence an extra dollop of fear.
There was a comforting sense of order to things. Things like getting up in the morning and going to bed at night. In between, you worked your land, fed and nurtured the black soil until it spit up enough to keep you and your family alive another winter. Sar knew all of this by heart. When the crops sprouted , you thanked Brede for taking time out from battling scourge like the girl before him and allowing you your next breath to do it all over again. These were things he knew to be true and honest, the things that governed his world and those around him. Yes,he knew there were demons and demon raisers but as long as the overall balance didn't get knocked akilter, that was okay, maybe even necessary, in some sense far beyond his hard-working mentality.
Now his world had been snatched up and given a good shake by no one else but himself and his fear. A part of his mind opened like a door rusted long shut and asked what if?
What if he'd been wrong to want her power to fight Lese?
What if she were as powerful as some said, able to snatch his soul in the time it took to shift from one foot to the next?
What if Gareth's arrogance angered her enough to prove to all of Gandoura that Brede was nothing more than a glib jokester? Someone adept at sleight-of-hand but when push came to shove folded and slunk out of town like a dog with its tail tight against its belly?
All of this raced through his mind in the time it took to swallow around the rock in his throat and the laughter inside his body spread, chuckling through his bones and driving him to a strange, jittering edge.
Gareth grinned at Sar's slumped posture and jangled the coins in his hand, enjoying the smug clink of gold on gold. He looked up at the slight girl on the dark horse and his grin widened, a special grin he pulled out and polished up for the festivals and tried out on only the prettiest of girls. He was a big festival goer. Dressing up in a clean tunic and breeches a bit too tight for everyday wear, he walked the twists and turns, eating spiced meat, and catching all the girls' eyes. Gareth had actually caught quite a bit more than the eyes of Sar's daughters, rolling each of them in the hay and swearing his love and devotion to each one afterwards. He hoped they wouldn't compare notes.
His hand stole down, leashed to his thoughts, and gave his crotch a quick shift and squeeze, a motion as familiar to him as breathing. The only thing better than Gareth's many conquests at the festivals were the freaks brought for display. They were pulled in from far and wide, grunting and gibbering in their handmade cages and mounted on carts that creaked ominously under their mad weight. He'd seen a three-armed slave (that one hadn't been very good; the arm was really just a tiny knob of flesh with two stubby fingers attached). There had once been a woman on display who was only only three feet high and had done an odd little dance, stripping off her clothes and tossing them to the drunken crowd. Gareth had been amazed to see that everything was in correct proportion to her height and he still regretted not shelling out the one gold piece that would have bought her for the night. But the best of all had been a woman with a tiny head, complete with a shock of black hair and flat, dead eyes, attached to the skin beneath her left breast. He'd seen that one four times.
This freak though, the one called the Twiceborn, the feaster of souls, the demon whore, might well be the best yet. Right now though, Gareth was a little disappointed. He'd expected a stallion blowing fire, carrying a hideous crone with a laugh mad enough to cause children to hide in their mother's skirts. Not this girl clad in leathers a little worn around the edges and riding a stallion who'd developed the annoying vice of stealing grass whenever the reins were slack.
Still, she was beautiful in an uneasy way, like something so perfect you knew it had to be wrong. Only shadows could sculpt something so flawless. Perfection was a sin in the eyes of Brede and Gareth shivered, a delightful ripple, as his eyes drank in her black, careless hair and wild, wild eyes.