In Which Travis Recovers Himself
"Ow! Don't scrub so hard!" Travis whined as Tag worked the lather of the cheapest shampoo into the still-matted blond hair.
The deepling gentled his hands a bit, but his tone was just as harsh as it had been since Travis's return. "How did you manage to get so bloody?" he demanded.
Travis shut his eyes so he wouldn't get shampoo in them again. "The King of No Reason was as big as a city wall," he grumbled. "He probably had blood to spare."
"I wish you had spared it. Then we wouldn't be stuck here turning the grass red." As if to punctuate this remark, Tag dumped a pail of water over his young ward's head, and soapy pink water rolled down the narrow shoulders in small waves. The grass wasn't really red, but they'd had to move to a remote part of the clearing to avoid killing too much plant life with the bloody water.
None of Travis's shirts were as sturdy as his trousers, so they had been yanked off and put away to be laundered later. This left him sitting shirtless on the grass, bleating about the coldwhich wasn't as bad as he was pretendingand rocking faintly back and forth as Tag kneaded his hair through a fourth washing. "I told you how it happened."
"Yes, but I still don't understand why you had to kill the King's horse. You seem to have forgotten to tell that part." Tag tapped his shoulder impatiently. "Finish scrubbing yourself off, I'll not have you caked with blood and complaining of an itch all the way to Zevan Blue."
For an impressively brief moment, Travis considered a mocking reply, but then he held his tongue and started rubbing his arms with the stained washcloth. He had itched unbearably on the ride back to claim his reward. Also, he was still annoyed at how the heavy bags had slowed the horse on the way to the clearing, and that he'd hadn't been able to keep the bossy but swift horse.
After a bit of silent, sulky washing, he said, "The King's horse was crazy or something. It tried to eat my ride home. I fought it
and things got a little out of hand."
"Don't they always." The tone in the deepling's voice was slightly disappointed, but also paternal and kind. Tag only spoke to Travis that way, and it never failed to make the little human feel victoriously special. In his very early childhood, he'd learned something about Tag that most other people learned about their mothershe was the most fantastic, brilliant person in the world.
The blood was almost completely washed off his chest now, and he was nearly done with his arms. His body still ached from exhaustion and the tousling he'd participated in, but they would soon right that. He took the newly refilled bucket and splashed himself.
"Hey!" Tag laughed, then pushed Travis forward somewhat. "Careful with the water. I'll get as soaked as you, and I've already had a bath."
Travis laughed as well, suddenly feeling an inner glow, so happy to be back 'home' that he could burst from it. Things could be and often were tough on the road, but for him and Tag, the two great adventurers of no reason, he was certain that no one could possibly have a better life.
As soon as he was clean, Tag made him change for bed, then go straight to sleep, which he gladly did. As he slipped into sweet recovering sleep, Travis heard the comfortingly familiar sounds of Tag having a blistering row with a songbird.
When Travis awoke, the clearing was dark and quiet as anything. He sat up slowly, then looked around, scratching his head. The row must have turned at least a little violenthe could see a small mess of bright feathers scattered in one corner, their colors subdued by the lack of light. But there were no mangled bird bodies. He chuckled into his hand. His 'big brother' really did hate birds, but he was too much of a soft-hearted mum, and he never really did any serious harm to them. He did do an awful lot of shouting, though.
Now he was lying fast asleep on his side, facing Travis and breathing in the deep, even manner of a person who had been sleeping for a while, and intended to go on doing it for at least as long. Tag didn't have so much as a whistling snore. This not only made him a choice bedfellow, but it had also taught Travis not to snore. Although, he still did it when he was ill or laying on his back wrong, and sometimes he woke himself with the noise.
He smiled a goofy, lopsided grin that came from having just enough sleep, and tried to think of something that would keep him amused until Tag woke up. There weren't a lot of choices. 'Playing quietly' had been one of Travis's weak points as a child, and it was still a source of frustration for him. However, he was willing to make an effort.
His clothes had been folded and placed with careful care next to his boots, but he was warm and comfortable in his long shirt. It was the same long shirt he'd worn since he was fourteen, and would have to be retired soon. He looked down at it and almost laughed. The hem would have had to work hard to reach his knees had he been standing, and it was getting thin and worn in places.
It was still very cozy, though. So cozy, that he thought he might just lay back down and go back to sleep for a little while.
The second time he woke up, there was a sunbeam in his eyes, and Tag was telling someone to go away. He wasn't shouting, but he sounded as if he were on his last nerve. Travis grinned. "Good morning," he said, as he sat up and rubbed his eyes.
Tag shooed away a rather large bird with his haversack. Then he turned around and smiled like a man being saved from drowning. "How do you feel?" He was obviously anxious to get on the road on a straight route to Zevan Blue, but he was also too much a parent to get to that right away.
Travis had missed that, traveling with the chatty horse. It had been nice enough, but it was no one's dad. "My head feels kinda thick," he said through a yawn, "but I'm okay. We should get going."
Before Tag could insist on a sit-down breakfast or a bit more rest, Travis got dressed and tugged on his boots. He munched on a lumpy sea biscuit and kicked the ground with his toes, one foot at a time, until his boots fit comfortably around his feet.
"Why are you in a hurry?" Tag asked, one eyebrow raised higher than the other. "Zevan Blue isn't going anywhere. Besides, it's hardly a day's journey east." In spite of his words, he had his haversack slung over one shoulder and was standing closest to the edge of the clearing the lead out onto the road.
With a shrug and an impertinent wink, Travis started walking. "No reason."
There was a long silence. Then Tag kicked the back of his shoes and chuckled. "That's going to stop being funny sooner than you think."
A couple of hours later, they were far enough upon the road that almost nothing but the grass and a few tiny villages could be seen in any direction. Travis was on one of his favorite subjectsexplosionsand Tag was mostly just letting him talk.
"I'm telling you, one day, even people without magic will be able to blast down whole mountains!" This was a sore point for Travis, who, after finding out he had no magic and never would gain any, was putting his faith in the alchemists. They protected their trade secrets with their lives, however, and killing them didn't sound like an action that would gain him any knowledge.
Tag only shook his head and said nothing. He looked tired. Not sleepy, but suffering from a lack of energy. His normally buoyant waves of short-ish hair were droopy, and so were his shoulders.
The observation gave Travis a turn. He stopped and gripped the straps of his haversack tightly in both hands. "When was the last time you ate?"
"This morning, same as you."
He narrowed his eyes critically, not to be nudged aside by this. "Not that kind of eating. The other kind."
Again, Tag said nothing. Then, after a hard poke in the back, he said, "Yeow!! Cut that out!"
"Tell me when you ate last!"
"A few days ago, I don't know." Tag walked quickly, a subtle reminder that they were trying to get to Zevan Blue in the next couple of months. "I didn't want to miss you, so I didn't go back into the town unless I needed to."
The comment was probably not meant to call forth a bubble of guilt, but it did just that. Travis kicked a pebble off the road and hurried to catch up. "I'm sorry I took so long
"Hush that sort of thing. I wasn't criticizing. You asked, so I told you."
"I said, hush, you silly little squeasel."
Travis scowled at him. "I am not a squeasel!" This, of course, was the informal name of a deepling that resembled a squirrel as closely as it resembled a weasel. It resembled both animals so closely, that it ended in not looking much like either. They were stupid, lively creatures, and Travis had been compared to them by many people who weren't Tag.
He forgot his indignation when Tag tripped over a rock and nearly fell. Granted, it was a large rock, and it was a compliment to his reflexes that he didn't fall, but it was also large enough that he should have seen and avoided it. He cut off Travis's concerned remarks with a wave of his hand. "Alright, I know. Let's stop at that village there, and I'll find someone amenable."
Through little fault of his own, Travis didn't know as many long and pretty words as Tag did, but he understood the intent. He didn't say anything as they turned off the road and headed for the village, but he wondered silently what he could do there while Tag went off with a woman.
In Which Tag Gets Completely Smashed
It was midmorning, which rarely meant that the pickings would be good. Midmorning was the sort of time when Tag nearly considered breaking his 'no widows' rule. He ducked smoothly into the only building in the village that looked like it might be a pub. It embarrassed him that Travis had such a level-headed, neutral understanding of this part of incubus life. He always treated it as someone else's physical need, about as everyday and boring as thirst. Tag had, of course, attempted the Talk when Travis had gotten old enough, but it had never really seemed to stick. This, Tag blamed on himself. He'd inadvertently taught his young ward that relations with women were something incubi needed to stay alive, and therefore nothing to do with him.
There were only three patrons in the pub, all of them males, and therefore not interesting. But then Tag saw a curvy barmaid standing behind the counter and looking bored. Her hair was the same comfortable brown as the floorboards, cropped short, like a schoolboy's. There was something intriguing about her eyes, though, in spite of the boredom sitting in them. A sort of satisfied world-weariness. She was no great beauty, but in a dark room, that never mattered much.
Halfway to her, he saw that she already had company. The look and smell of the man screamed 'prince', or at least 'duke'. He was too clean, too pleasant-looking. Handsome, maybe, but looking pleasant was something else. He looked like the sort of person that Tag wouldn't have minded babysitting Travis in earlier days. Tag rolled his eyes and moved up to intercept the barmaid.
She caught his eye and winked. "What's your pleasure?" she asked, her tone and body language making it clear that she'd guessed.
Quick on the uptake. That made it all much easier, which was nice in the midmorning. He grinned. This might be fun. If only the princeling hugging a pint was half as quick. It almost hurt to look at him. Tall and widenot fat, but muscular in that particularly annoying way most heroes had. Tag hoped this blue-eyed princeling wasn't a hero. Too many princes were, and they all had an inexplicable way of telling what he was. Not one of them reacted well to the knowledge, either. There had been times that he'd been lucky his skin couldn't scar.
Hero or not, this one seemed dim, but friendly in a doggish way. He smiled vaguely, then turned his attention back to his pint.
Working out a plan to sweep away the barmaid, Tag sat on a stool just close enough to afford a comfortable conversation. Then he flagged down the barmaid. "I'll have a pint of what he's having," he said jovially.
To his surprise, she chuckled with a deep, rich voice, and busied herself behind the counter without saying anything. While she did that, Tag noticed that the princeling was blushing.
"What was that about?" Tag asked, a confused but sophisticated half-smile on his face, eyebrow raised.
But the princeling just shrugged and stared down at the counter as though he were searching for the meaning of life in it. Tag did not like this.
A stein was clomped down next to his arm and he took it with a leer for the barmaid. Then he took a suspicious, hesitant sipand nearly spat. It was water. Cold, but without so much as a slice of lemon plopped in for flavor.
His hunger momentarily forgotten, he turned to the broad-shouldered man hiding behind a pint of cold water. This would be far more entertaining than any rendezvous, and if he was clever, he could still end it that way. The barmaid could wait, and if not, there had to be other women about. He moved down a stool or two, and gave the princeling a hard look. "Why are you drinking water in a pub?"
Another shrug, then, "I like the atmosphere. And I like water."
"Can't you handle anything stronger?" He was one to talk, he knew, but no one else within earshot did.
After taking a moment to think on it, the princeling gave another shrug, though this time it was a much jerkier movement, like a twitch. "The strongest drink I've ever had is wine."
Tag scoffed, hoping it made him look good. "You can do better than that, big guy. Come on, have a drink with me." This would kill two birds with one stone. He closed his eyes and savored the metaphor, then ordered two pints of cheap lager. Getting the prince drunk would probably be funny, and it would also get him out of there.
He was already making the most hilarious faces, and turning red as well. "No! I-I-I mean
It's very kind of you, but I don't want to"
"What's your name, kid?" Tag asked calmly, pushing a pint at the man while he started on his own.
The polite refusal died away into a simple, "Whu?" Then he took the pint and blinked at it. "I'm
"Right." Tag nudged the pint closer to him. "Drink up, Um Damien."
Four pints in, Tag realized with a jolt of dismay that there was much less of him than there was of Damien, it was too early in the day to be drinking this much, and he'd left Travis on his own outside. The boy could be trusted to behave himself for an hour, maybe two, but not any longer. He got into things.
Thoroughly inebriated and starving for affection as only an incubus could be, Tag grabbed the arm of the nearest warm human body and started for the door. "I'll take lunch to go," he said, slurring more than he meant to. Both the barmaid and Damien let out surprised gasps. The barmaid's was tinged with disbelief and irritation.
As they left the pub, Tag slowly came to another realization. The arm he'd grabbed was rather hairy and thicker than his own. These were generally odd traits in most kinds of women, he knew quite well.
"Please let go of me
Tag swore under his breath. Like a drunken idiot, he'd gone and dragged Damien out of the pub. Oh well. In a pinch such as this one, he'd do. It'd be simple enough, they were both fairly blitzed.
He looked around until he saw an ash blonde whirlwind. Then he swore again, much louder. Travis had already gotten into a fight. Tag yanked Damien ahead of him and nearly plowed them both through a wall. "My
kid brother is in a spot of trouble," he said, hoping he sounded more charming than sleepy. "Wait here, and I'll make it worth your while." A seductive wink would have been called for there, but he wasn't altogether
together just then.
Wading wearily into the scuffle, he used the fact that he was himself to stop Travis's blows short of their targets. Some amazing ability that otherwise ignored the boy made it physically impossible for him to ever hit Tag by accident. An amazing lack of skill kept him from ever doing it on purpose. His flurrying attacks sent him tripping over his own bony legs and he fell in the dirt.
The string of truly vulgar obscenities that Tag had expressly forbidden him to use was ended by a cheesy grin. His lip hadn't been split, but he had a bruise on one cheek, and his face and clothes were dusty. He sprang to his feet before he could get scolded. "Tag! You were gone so looong
! Did you find" Suddenly he stopped and glared past Tag. "What's wrong with that guy?"
After putting a hand on Travis's shoulder to keep himself upright, Tag turned around. "Oh. That's who I found."
Women don't look like that, Tag." The frown of concentration on the boy's face was almost as funny as the mortified blush that Damien was swiftly descending into. Tag giggled, and Travis's frown deepened, crinkling his face even more. "How drunk are you?"
"Put it this wayif you stood a bacchanalian tree frog next to me, I'd make him look sober as a rock," Tag said cheerfully. He swayed, and was surprised to see Travis and Damien each take one of his arms. Perhaps Damien wouldn't be any good as food after all. He was too nice. It had to be due to that pleasantness of his, damn his eyes. Besides, if he was still this steady, then he probably wasn't nearly drunk enough for even Tag to persuade.
"Tag? Should you sit down, maybe?" Anxiety was making Travis's voice shake.
It was difficult, but Tag managed to blink himself to a more controllable state of consciousness. "I'm alright," he said, smiling at both of them. "Still hungry, but if you point me to the pub, I'll take care of that soon enough."
Two seconds after he was back insidealoneTag had yet another realization. He'd left Travis on his own again, but this time he'd left him with someone who, even if he wasn't one, looked exactly like a prince. Travis was not as complicated or intelligent as most people, he liked the world to be colored in with absolutes. To him, all princes were the same as all heroes.
Travis despised heroes.
In Which Damien Defends Well
The very air seemed less constricting now that the incubus had disappeared into the pub. Damien stared at the doors and let out a sigh, feeling somnolence covering him like a slow spill. He'd read almost nothing of incubi or even succubi, but he knew the slight man was one of their kind. But it wasn't any of his concern. He turned to say farewell to the young man with the fair hair that stood up straighter than a priest's hatthen stopped short.
Then boy was glaring darkly, vaguely slanted green eyes blazing. Leftover anger from his fracas, perhaps? But no, Damien couldn't quite believe that, the glare had a clear, if confusing intent. He raised his arms in a gesture that half-resembled surrender and stumbled back a few steps. "I'm afraid there is
" He hadn't really known what to say, but the boy saved him from having to figure it out.
"You leave Tag alone!" he barked. "He's never hurt anyone. And he won't!"
"I've no doubt," Damien said, still moving away. "Now I must" his retreat into the pub was barred by a gleaming steel blade. The boy had drawn a sword, single-bladed and obviously light, but that only meant that he could slice all the faster. Damien stared at it, thought he might not be as sober as he'd previously considered himself to be, then did the most sensible thing he could think of.
He put his hands in his pockets and leaned against the horse post. A hot-blooded young swordsman couldn't know what to do with an indifferent opponent, or victim more like, in this case. Sure enough, the young man lowered his weapon the tiniest fraction. "You are a hero, aren't you?" He squinted suspiciously. "Because you look like one."
Swallowing an offended comment about the deceptions that appearances practiced, Damien shrugged. He was getting very good at it, after so many chances to do it. "I can't really help how I look," he said, although secretly, he didn't think he looked heroic in the least, "but I can help what I am." Especially now, he added to himself. "And I'm definitely not a hero." He'd mulled over the profession briefly, but decided that already having run away from a quest, as a second son, he would be risking too much in seeking out another.
The sword point was raised to his throat and he nearly let out an irritated scoff that would have gotten him killed. This was getting tiresome, if still deadly. The boy twisted the blade in a way that whispered at enviable skill. "Then what are you?"
This town didn't seem to have any guards, but why weren't any passersby lending a hand?
Easy answer, there was no one passing by. Damien checked his breathing. Hesitant to fully explain himself in such a precarious situation, he attempted a laugh. It came out a strangled cough. "Just now? Confused mostly. And a little tipsy."
This confession earned him a mercenary's grin that made the boy look older and terrifying. "Oh. Than you'd betterwait." His brow furrowed again. "Why do you want to go back in the pub then?"
Because it's the nearest escape from you, you loony bugger, Damien thought, again feeling that unavoidable somnolence. Certainly the boy was a serious threat, but he had such a ridiculous wrong estimate of things that setting him straight was almost too demanding. "Look, why don't you tell me your name and we can"
The blade flourished once more, underlining the fact that should the misunderstanding escalate into battle, the boy had the advantage of being stone sober, if almost a head shorter and sporting as much muscle as a milkmaid.
Which was to say, enough muscle, but not really meant for taking a hit. "What do you want my name for?"
"Introduction's sake, I'll give you mine," Damien said, thinking himself so close to stuttering that the actual sound of his words made him feel better. But he was losing his grip nonetheless. "I'm Damien
er, Damien Veer." Although it was only half a dreadful lie, it still hurt him to tell it. But his true name could only serve him ill from now on.
There was such an extended glowering hush that he was certain the false name had worked its own ill, but then the boy sheathed his sword. "
My name is Travis."
Automatically, Damien betrayed himself by asking, "And what more?" as was customary in his country. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wanted to kick himself. He might have actually done it, but that would have looked too strange, he decided.
Travis cocked his head to one side, then broke out in an amiable smile. "Oh, now I know where I heard that name before, Veer. Are you a miner?"
Rather than tangle himself in lies he wouldn't be able to support for longer than two minutes, Damien shook his head.
"Maybe your dad then. You're from the mountains over there, anyway." Travis pointed north. He was apparently so certain that he finally had the right of it that he didn't wait for a confirmation or denial. "Only, you still haven't said why you were following Tag."
It seemed to be a very important matter, though Damien couldn't begin to think why. But the incubus, Tag, he'd been continually called, had mentioned a connection between himself and Travis. He'd used the word 'kid', but surely Tag wasn't old enough to have fathered a child so near adulthood himself. Two words, maybe? A 'kid' something. Damien wished he'd been paying attention, but that damn incubus had turned the whole day on its ear long before then.
A hard blunt object poked him in the shoulder. Travis, looking increasingly impatient, had come close enough to jab Damien with the hilt of a second sword. "Are you falling asleep?"
"Then tell me why you were following Tag," the boy persisted, poking with the hilt again.
Damien pushed it gingerly away, then sighed heavily. "I wasn't following anyone. Your friend met me in the pub, and then, for no reason that I can divine, he dragged me out of it." He didn't think it wise to add that Tag had been acting very strange as well.
But Travis had apparently guessed at that part, and laughed. "That's stupid. Tag only drags off women, and you're not one."
Even as he was blushing, Damien remembered. Kid brother. The words flashed through his brain in Tag's sultry voice. It all made sense
but then it didn't. The two looked nothing alike to start with, and he was as certain that Travis was human as he was that he needed to sit down.
As he did so, he became aware of a slight swimming sensation in his stomach. It had a name, but he couldn't recall it. By the time he remembered that it was called Nausea, he was hanging on the horse post and retching.
Either Travis was used to caring for this sort of thing, or he was just prone to bursts of compassion. Based on his professional manner, Damien decided it was a bit of both, but mostly just being used to it. When he was finished humiliating himself so painfully, he knelt in the dirt and considered praying for a few seconds.
"You ought to find a room," Travis said, having moved back to a respectable sort of distance. "Or maybe that's why you wanted to go back in the pub. Do you live in the boardinghouse above it?"
Damien stared at him, trying desperately to connect the points and failing so miserably that after a few attempts, he found he was only thinking about getting more water and perhaps a slice of bread. "I don't actually have a place to stay," he said, at the same time not entirely sure why he was saying it. "Er, at the moment, that is
The truth was, he hadn't intended to remain here. He didn't even know the name of the villagehe'd just wanted to stop and rest for a while, have a refreshing glass of water. Perhaps it had started going wrong before Tag had appeared. Yes, it must have been due to the barmaid having an overly indulged sense of humor. Water in a beer stein, for heaven's sake.
A jab in the thigh made him looked up. Travis was giving him a sort of look that almost had pity, but was too busy being mystified. "I'm going to help you up now," he said.
"How kind of you."
"Yup. Tag raised a human saint, I know." A pair of skinny arms hooked under Damien's. "You can tell him if you ever see him again."
Damien held up as much of his own weight as he could just then. He smiled dozily and said, "Yes, of course I will."
They staggered wordlessly towards the pub door. Travis seemed to be struggling with something else, but Damien only noted it in passing. Then the boy said quietly, "I'm not really a saint. It's just a joke."
"Nonsense," Damien said, not one to stint on a small kindness. "Look at yourself."
In Which Orah Sets Out
People of all shapes, sizes, creeds, and races were bustling about the city, every one of them so eager to reach their individual destinations that they were trodding on their own feet. Orah pressed her back against a wall, curling her toes in fear of having them crushed by the obnoxious mob. There was a shop nearby that sold boots, but her pride was warring with her practical nature.
"I may not be an official healer anymore, but old habits die hard
" she whispered to herself. Also, she had big feet. The weather and her profession had both been good excuses to go about with sandals or often no shoes at all, but she'd decided to travel north. As far north as she could get.
Unfortunately, that meant colder weather and rougher terrain, which also meant that she would need shoes to combat them both. With a final grumbling sigh and a wish that she could use profane language, she took seven ginger steps, up to the edge of the shopfront.
A thin young man, short in stature, but not quite shorter than Orah, was standing there, barking the wares. Occasionally, he would stop to sweep a bread roll out of his pocket and take a bite, but then he would put it back and resume shouting. At first, he didn't seem to see her. She wasn't surprised; his hair wasn't very long, but it was in his face, still half-wet from the rain that had passed half an hour before. Clumps of it slapped and clung to his skin like loving black worms as he whipped his head around, advertising at the top of his voice.
According to his barking, he was the cobblera bit young, in Orah's opinion, which was good, she trusted youthand his boots were the most durable and stylish in the city. By the look of him, if they were, then he'd earned it. Whenever his hair moved away from his face, she could see puffiness around his eyes and red lines scoring them, and his hands sported bandages on every finger.
"Looks like your thumb got in the way of the hammer a few times," she said when he took his next roll break.
He glanced at her, then nearly dropped the roll. "Uher, no, not really. I fell."
She rolled her eyes. "By your leave," she said as she snatched his more seriously injured hand. "If you had fallen, as you say, there is a limited amount of ways that you could have wounded your hands. Just about all of them involve major or even exclusive damage to your palms, and" she moved his hair out of his eyes, it was starting to irritate her"your fingers wouldn't look like someone had stepped on them."
The cobbler had started going pale as soon as she'd taken his hand, but when she said "stepped on", he squeaked and yanked his hand back. "How diI mean, if you aren't gonna buy some shoes, please go away."
Although she would have gladly had fun with his apparent fear of anyone resembling a fortune teller, she did need shoes, and she was not overjoyed at the prospect of looking for another cobbler. "Actually, I do want to buy shoes. Boots, please."
He looked down at her feet, the anxiety subsiding to make way for a professional's estimation. "Are you a traveler?"
Orah's first instinct was to say, 'No, of course not, do I look like one?' But she stomped on it with a mental curse for her small-minded caretaker. Things were different now, the spiteful old bat had been dead for a year, and there was no one to tell Orah that every original thought in her head was wrong. Outwardly, she gave no sign of her thoughts and just said, "Yes, I am."
Her eyes widened as the cobbler's face broke out in a sunny smile that squeezed his eyes half-shut. "Wonderful!" he said, squeaking a little, although without any trace of apprehension. "Please say you're going north."
"Good guess," she said, unable to keep a smile off her face. What an eccentric man. She hoped everyone she met on her travels would be this interesting.
He beamed all the more and wrenched open the door to his shop. "Lasa, come and take care of the window!" A tiny girl who couldn't have been a day older than seven years dove through the doorway and planted herself in front of the window. Her short braids bounced as she began barking the wares twice as loud as the cobbler had. He turned to Orah and smiled a crooked, embarrassed smile. "I know it isn't good to have a little one working, but it's easy, safe work, and she loves it so much."
Orah followed him into the shop, noting with approval that he not only left the door wide open, but kept a sharp eye on the girl and a clear way to run through it if called upon to do so. She helped by not standing in his way. "Your daughter?" she asked, looking casually about the shop.
"Oh no, Lasapina is my baby sister," he said, blushing like a pot of pinks. "It's just the two of us." He skipped over to a counter, then ducked behind it. "Less people have been going north lately, since the winter's so close and all, but I made these anyway, because, well," he popped back up, cheeks flushed, still smiling. "Because I like making boots."
It was hard not to appreciate the fun in the situation. Orah grinned and decided she liked everything about being a traveler so far. Her caretaker had been an idiot about that as well. She accepted the boots with reverent hands and looked them over critically. The leather was smooth and uncracked, not top quality, but new, and the stitches were perfect, even and small. "They're amazing," she said, meaning it down to the breathlessness. She hated all close-toed shoes and she could see herself loving these in the future. She'd already fallen in immediate like with them.
The cobbler was nearly glowing now. Then he quoted a rather high price, and Orah was compelled to hand the boots back to him. She couldn't even haggle, he wasn't asking for the full worth. Her thoughts bounced from the cobbler and his wounded hands, to his younger sister, to her own needs. Then she growled a sigh and reached for her purse.
"Just take better care of your hands," she said as she handed him the exact amount he'd asked for.
She'd hoped he might quail or squeak again, but he just nodded happily and deposited the money into a safe. Soon after she'd left the shop, still hugging the wall as she went, she heard the girl stop shouting and the cobbler took it up again. At least that hadn't been some kind of scam, she'd been wondering about it for a while.
Now that she had a pair of sensible shoes, she needed sensible stockings. Or socks. Whatever one was meant to wear beneath boots. It took a few hours, but at the end of the shopping trip, she was satisfied that she had everything she needed.
Except a grand purpose. She knew she didn't really need one, but she rather wanted one. The city didn't seem like a logical place to get one, and although she had considered making it up, it didn't seem like that would work. There was a distinct shortage of oracles and the like in the city, and all the old wisdoms only looked wise. The things they actually said were mad ravings, devoid of usefulness. All of her work at the healing house had made her think that crone fairies and transformed princes were scattered all over the place, but she hadn't seen a single one since she'd left home.
She had put on the socks and boots a while ago, and even though they were mostly comfortable, her toes felt cramped, and her feet were too hot. So she decided to forget the purpose and look for a bench. As she sat massaging her toes, she looked around the city. It was crowded and smelly, and she wanted to leave as soon as she could. 'Right now' would be favorite, but it would probably be a good idea to get used to wearing boots before she started walking for days on end.
In the meantime, she had absolutely nothing to do. She jammed the boots back on and stood up. If nothing else, she could pick up a commission from a guild board and do some good. It had been a while since she'd last had enough time to do some volunteer work. Besides, she had to have something to tell Jondra, Mandenry, and the others in letters.
The board was larger than the one at the guild in her hometown, but it wasn't as full. Everything from aged parchment to shreds of various garments were tacked to the board, some of them obvious pranks, others urgently in need of seasoned heroes. Orah shied away from them, reasoning that with no magic and no skill with weapons, reading those notices would only make her feel guilty.
Instead, she drifted over to a sparse bit of the board and read the splattered cry for help scrawled on a ripped shirt sleeve. The handwriting was not bad for its circumstances, but the message itself was confusing and poorly spelled.
"Help needed," she read aloud, starting with the bit she could understand, "something that might be 'epidemic'
sweeping over Cielan kingdom." An epidemic would be a challenge. Too much for one healer, but if she could set up a healing house and start teaching
But there was more to the message. "Extremely dangerous, only veteran heroes called forwhat is that? Heroes can't treat scraped knuckles on their own." She stamped her foot, scuffing her own toes on the insides of her boots. "Honestly, people think every little problem requires an enthusiastic lump of muscle with a pointy stick."
She snatched the shirt sleeve off the board and tucked it into her haversack. There were still a few words on it that she couldn't make out at all, but she had the gist of it. They were probably directions anyway. She had a map, and she knew where Cielan was. If she got lost, she could always stop and find a guide. Epidemics were healers' work, and she was going to take care of it.