In Which Travis is Brave, i.e., Stupid
Seeing Damien roughing Tag around made Travis want to hit him, but there wasn't time for that now, and it looked as if he had a plan. Travis settled for subtly pulling Orah deeper into the protection of the alley, and was only a little surprised when she didn't step on his foot.
"What's it? What are you on about?" Tag certainly didn't seem to mind being jerked around like a little girl's doll, unless he was just being too polite to show it.
"The bag of devouring!" Damien said, nearly squeaking again. "It can eat the edicada, right?"
Travis nodded gleefully, almost giddy at the idea of being able to take down such a huge foe so easily. "He's right, Tag, the bag used to try to eat me all the time, the edicada would make it happy for years!"
Unfortunately, Tag didn't look so readily convinced. He chewed on his lower lip, looking up at Damien's hopeful face with a distinctly doubtful mopey face of his own. "I don't know if the bag will open enough for that
Are you sure we can't just
?" He looked over at Travis and appeared to catch the intense glare Orah was trying to stab him with, then slumped.
"It'll work, right?" Although the raucous bedlam on the streets continued, and the ground shuddered so much Travis could feel his jaw growing sore from his rattling teeth, there seemed to be a sort of private silence padded around Damien's brief request for reassurance.
Travis held his breath, knowing what the answer would be, or at least hoping he did, if only so they could put this place behind them and get somewhere less dangerous. Like a troll encampment.
Eventually, with a sigh and a whispered curse that doubled as a prayer in this particular case, Tag moved Damien's hands away from his arms and untied the bag of devouring from the thin woven belt around his waist. "Fine, you can all have your way. This time. Next time we're stuck in a city beset by a slobbering brute, I get to decide what to do about it."
Even though he knew it wouldn't do any good, Travis hurried ahead of Orah in an attempt to make her stay there, safe and, if he stopped to be totally honest, out of the way. He failed in that, but also in his move to take the bag of devouring from Tag.
"Oh, no you don't," Tag said in his strongest no-nonsense parental tone. "The bag tries to eat you at the best of times, and this is as far from those as things get. If you're coming, you'll have to work with Orah to clear the streets of those hysterical Cielan idiots."
Rather than waiting for Orah to chastise him for the insult, he strode out of the alley with something less like dutiful purpose and more like the attitude of an army private sick of peeling potatoes. Damien followed close behind, as if he meant to overtake him, perhaps try what Travis had failed to do.
Travis felt a grim mix of satisfaction and dismay when Damien was delivered a similar reply. "Why do you"
"It's my bleedin' bag, I'm gonna do it!" Tag sidestepped a fleeing Cielan citizen. "You three get these people out of my damn way."
Orah was the first to do as he 'asked', none-too-gently directing the wildly running people towards the city gates. After half a moment of balancing between argument and obeying, Damien did the same, gentler, but also slower. Travis sighed through gritted teeth and did as he was told, but made it his priority to stay close to Tag, should he need assistance.
At first, Tag didn't seem to see him, doing his own part to shuffle the people into the right direction, but then he looked back and gave Travis a look of disbelief. "I thought I told you"
Travis picked up a fallen child and gave him a nudge to get him going again. "I know, I'm doing it. I just can't let you go by yourself
"Darkness's sake, you're stubborn."
"Your fault," he chirped, kicking a guard on his way. "Get outta here, we can handle it."
The guard, apparently assuming they were heroes, abandoned his run at the edicada and began helping the people out of the city. This freed up very little of Travis's effort, and he wished more of the guards would behave the same way. They were very close to the edicada now, and there were a few contingents of armored men stalwartly poking the creature's feat with swords it might have used as toothpicks.
Tag started shoving them out of the way and shouting, but his voice didn't carry loudly enough, and only a few of them listened anyway. Most of the guards just kept on hacking away without caring that what they were doing was useless.
"Run away!" Travis hollered. It was the only military command he knew, and it worked marvelously. His voice, trained from years of shouting for entertainment or no good reason at all, penetrated the helmets and thick skulls, and the guards executed an impressive retreat in exactly the right direction.
One of them tripped over his foot, just to make Tag feel a little better. Tag gave him a weak smile, then started talking to the bag of devouring. He'd just managed to convince it to take a crack at eating the edicada when a stray chicken flew in his face.
"Get the hell off!" he shouted, scrabbling at it, but the chicken seemed to be almost clinging to him like a scared child.
The bag of devouring had fallen from his hand, but Travis caught it before it could hit the cobblestones. It opened its maw wide, stretching to grab some part of him, and it was all he could do not to squeal and drop it. "You have a job to do!" he said, pointing it at the edicada.
In all the excitement suddenly at its feet, the edicada had stopped moving. Travis looked up and realized that it was staring down at him, a chunky string of drool clinging to its wide open mouth. The bag of devouring still writhing in his hand, struggling to get just one of his fingers, he gripped the leathery outside and tugged the bag open, then clamped it onto one of the edicada's feet.
The edicada howled in outraged pain, the sound seeping into Travis's deepest insides and making them feel poisoned. He let go of the bag of devouring to throw up.
Tag's hand on his shoulder made him look back at the edicada, and what he saw, he would never forget. The enormous brown monster was being sucked into the bag of devouring, howling and clawing at the air, then the buildings, then the streets, until it was clawing at the bag itself. Showing no signs of damage or upset, the bag continued greedily consuming it until it not even a chip of claw was left.
With a long, noisy burp, the bag slumped to the ground, as if it were empty.
No citizens rushed forward to thank them. The city was as close to being evacuated as they could get it, helped along by the edicada's appetite. Travis heard approaching feet, and turned around to see Orah and Damien.
His heartbeat nearly quit when Orah drew him up to stand and hugged him. Despite the situation and how she'd helped take care of it, she smelled like fresh water and orange blossoms. The hug was a quick one, over before he could return it, but she was smiling when she let go and stood back. "You're a hero," she said, as though saying it made her want to burst with something like pride.
He didn't know how to take that. "I am?" Heroes weren't something to aspire to be, they were notoriously stupid and arrogant. Except
There was no disputing the look on Orah's face. She though heroes were good, or at least him being heroic was good. This called for some thinking.
Meanwhile, he risked a hug.
In Which Tag Makes Use of the River
High on victory and seeing his little charge happily receiving some feminine affection at last, Tag needed to celebrate. At times like that, his attention span was almost worse than a bug's, and, vow forgotten, he walked unsteadily up to Damien.
The prince was grinning broadly, and met him with a hearty, rather painful clap on the arm. "You did it!"
Tag's attention span expanded very slightly, and he remembered what he had promised not to do, and nearly did it anyway. "Travis did it, really," he said very, very quietly, before prodding Damien into a sluggish walk. "I got attacked by a chicken."
"Let's just get out of here, I don't wanna talk about it."
He really didn't want to talk about it, and Damien didn't make him, even as he and Orah listened to Travis regale them with the tale. The boy gave credit where it was due, but he fudged over the details that involved the chicken. Even so, Tag's face burned with shame, and he wished he'd killed the chicken instead of thrusting it at a peasant woman. He hoped she would slaughter it and feed it to her brood. The bloody bird had panicked, recognized something in him that all the other bloody birds saw, and launched itself at his face, wailing like an old crone with a softened head.
It should have been a happy time, the bag of devouring was ecstatic, promising with every step Tag took that it would never bother Travis or any of their companions again, not after a meal like that. He thanked it, petting it absently, but said nothing to the others as they did the boring sorts of chores that had to be done in cities. Many merchants were taking advantage of the subsiding chaos to hike up their prices, but Travis was very good at convincing them to lower the numbers.
After they'd left the city, Tag tried to stay somewhat apart from them, and Travis mercifully understood and respected this, but Damien insisted on asking after his welfare no less than six times.
The sixth or seventh time, Tag lost his patience. "I'm fine!! I'm not some spongy, damp-eyed princess you need to keep babysitting!"
Damien looked like he'd been slapped. His eyes squinted almost as though he was going to pout, and he moved away. Orah stopped walking to put a hand on his arm. "Maybe we should stop and rest, clean up a little
"I'll get firewood," Travis announced, sending Tag a worried frown before running off to do as he'd said he would.
Appalled at himself, Tag let his shoulders sag and walked off in the direction of the river. He wasn't hungry, but he felt like he was, a little. The vow had been a stupid one, he wanted to take it back. Grumbling, he sat on the river bank and watched the wind affecting the water. He realized it now, there really wasn't a chance of 'persuading' the thick-headed prince. He wasn't sure he wanted to anymore, there was too much danger in it.
After all, if Damien's manner was any indication, he'd need romancing, and romancing was always a bad idea. People got attached to one when they were romanced.
This was all well and good and rational, except for one small hitch. Tag still wanted him. It had become a pet fancy, something he'd half-promised himself in return for honoring the vow and being patient. Not an easy thing to let go of.
Hesitant footsteps behind him told him to turn around. When he did so, he saw the man himself, broad-shouldered and awkward as a newborn bear cub. "Am I disturbing you?"
"No." Tag patted the dampish earth beside him. "I'd like it if you would, though."
"It would seem I already have," Damien said, taking the indicated seat.
Tag smiled, unable to deter his own nature. Someone warm and engaging, that would be just the thing. Like a hot cup of tea on a snowy day. It had been so long since he'd seen snow, real blue-white snow under a nearly moonless sky. His mind was wandering, and he was letting it, but Damien was still sitting beside him. Tag shook his head and looked away. "Strange turn of events. I'm the one who's supposed to bother you," he said, trying to keep his tone light. Joking, or at least giving that appearance.
Either Damien saw through it, or he simply wasn't in the mood to joke. "You don't, not really."
"What a relief." It wasn't, really, but Tag didn't know how to express it. The prince was incredibly thick-headed. However, he was also strangely comforting, a bit like Travis was, but not the same at all. "Can you keep a secret?"
It wasn't that he hadn't wanted to say it, he just hadn't meant to actually do it. Damien smiled, recognizing the recycled words. "About as well as you can."
Maybe I shouldn't tell you, then."
" He rubbed his neck and looked at the grass, pretending to count the individual blades. "I didn't think your plan would work," he said, after a long pause. "I shouldn't have doubted you."
Damien put a friendly hand on his shoulder. "Do you think I thought it would work? I kept waiting for you to call me an idiot and start pushing us all up and over the alley wall."
"You!" Tag stared at him, unable to think of the right insult. He nearly called him a robin, but that didn't make any sense at all. Finally, he just scoffed and shook his head, surreptitiously shrugging himself free of the hand on his shoulder. "You had me fooled."
" Damien looked out at the river, a sort of awe about him. "You know, when I was growing up, we never had so much water in one place," he said.
It was a wide river, even this far from the mouth. Large and lively, like many of the ones Tag remembered swimming in and up before he'd left the Underrealm. He'd been to deserts and the like since then, but it still felt odd to meet people who didn't know water the way he did. "Might I conclude then, that you don't know how to swim?"
The question must have been a delicate one, or at least come equipped with an awkward answer, because Damien was not ready with a quick reply. "I should," he said at last. "My home isn't that far from Cielan, I used to visit it. When you think about it, I grew up not far from this very spot."
Kidnapping plans remembered and simultaneously discardedfor the momentTag reached out with a hand he promised to bruise later. In the end, it didn't matter, as Damien didn't even notice. "Where do you come from, anyway?"
Damien pointed. "Most countries call it Carnavan." Then he let his hand drop back into his lap. "But I don't think it really matters. I can never go back there."
"Why not? You're a member of the royal family." Tag blinked furiously as Damien snorted, a derisive noise he would not thought the prince incapable of.
"That doesn't matter. I left, so I'm a disgrace. It's very simple, really, if you look hard enough at the facts."
Do you even want to go back?" Tag thought this was important somehow, although he wasn't certain why.
The answer made him feel much better, for equally mysterious reasons. "Not really."
They sat in companionable silence for some time, neither of them making more noise than the wind or the water. At length, Tag moved a bit nearer, and in a low purr designed to make Damien lean closer, he said, "I'm sorry I snapped at you before."
Damien, who did not answered the invitation to move in, shook his head, for all the world a nob sharing political troubles with a beloved courtier friend. "No. It was my fault, I shouldn't have harped on you like that."
There are a million things I wish you'd do to me, you foot-dragger, Tag thought as he glowered at the water. "Oh, stop apologizing. You've never done anything wrong in your entire blessed life."
He immediately regretted saying this when Damien reddened and moved farther away. "I'm sI mean, I keep upsetting you
"I'm upsetting myself."
"Because of me."
"Are you trying to get something out of me, or are you just naturally built this way?"
Wait, say all of that over again, I don't think I understood half of it."
Tag propped himself up on his arms and laughed. "Let's stop this. I can suggest far better ways to spend our time." He would have added 'together' if he'd thought for a moment that the hint would be taken. The Wall of Innocence was starting to make him want to scream.
"What did you have in mind?" There was no leer, no waggling of eyebrows. Not so much as a knowing smile. Just the same artless puppy smile that Damien wore when he was mysteriously comfortable. Tag wanted to smack it off of him.
He chose a less violent tactic. "How about I teach you how to swim?"
Damien shied away, though this time he was moving away from the river. "N-no, I only like to look at the water
I'd sink in two seconds."
"I'll hold you up."
"I'd crush you!"
The comment's meaning was completely lost on Damien, but he did renew his blush. "Could you really?"
Tag grinned. "I love open-ended questions. Could I really what?" Here he allowed himself a charming smirk full of whispered secrets.
No reaction stronger than a darkened blush. Tag's ego was beginning to take this rather hard. However, it gained a lift when Damien scooted over a bit. "Could you really teach me how to swim?"
"Of course. I taught Travis." Tag paused to consider about how long ago that must have been. "
He was lot, er
smaller than you, then."
Damien looked at the water one more time.
"I guess it wouldn't hurt," he said, "if it really won't be a bother to you."
"On the contrary, it would be my pleasure," Tag said, already stripping down. Getting Damien to do the same was understandably more difficult, but in the end, the prince as in his shorts. With ten times the speed, he was subsequently in the water.
In Which Damien Learns Something
They might have spent any amount of time in the river, Damien coming close to drowning far more than once, and Tag laughing and putting him at ease every time.
When he finally let Damien climb out of the river to lie down and rest, Tag was flushed and happy from so much splashing and laughter. Having found a spot to let the sun dry him off, Damien put the last vestiges of his energy into a frustrated scowl. "I am never letting you talk me into anything ever again."
"Hah. You say that now. Give me a few days, and I'll have you convinced you can fly." Tag crawled over to sit next to him, his hair and skin glistening in the harsh sunlight of midday. He wrung his hair out onto Damien's chest, ignoring the protests this produced, then looked up at the sky, shading his eyes.
Damien watched him, then closed his eyes, afraid to be accused of staring. "It's not usually this hot here. Not this time of year."
"Maybe something to do with that edicada," Tag said, still fussing with his hair a little. He looked even more like a princess this way, which was particularly strange, as Damien had never seen a princess wear so very little. Also, Tag's revealed anatomy was practically shouting at him to stop making mental 'princess' comments.
He cushioned his arms under his head and took a few long deep breaths. It felt good to breathe clean fresh air, and not have to worry about getting water up his nose. "I'll never look at rivers the same way again."
"How about me?"
"Nor you either."
Tag leaned over him with an elated expression before Damien could take back what he'd said. Of course he had meant it, but he hadn't meant it like
that. It had been a harmless thing to say, or so he'd thought. It didn't seem harmless now, the way that Tag was smirking down at him, like a cat hunting a bowl of cream. An easy target, yet still worth playing with before mealtime.
"You're an awful tease, do you know that?"
"A tease and a cad, however will I excuse myself in polite society?" This answer too, came and went without warning. Damien didn't know whether to blame it on all the river water he'd swallowed, or on the way Tag's face hoarded the shadows cast by the sun. Those shadows had a distinctly eye-grabbing effect on his countenance, and his eyes looked almost black when one squinted.
Damien had missed the reply. Tag's expression changed from one of intentional allure to impatient disappointment. "If I'd known you were going to be like this, I would have lead you off while you were still drunk."
Damien laughed without really meaning to or even feeling it. "Tried and failed, O great incubus. Guess you'll have to try harder." He bit his tongue, then narrowed his eyes. "Are you making me say these things?"
Tag's face loomed just a fraction closer, blotting out most of the sun's glare. "Not at all. Every single thing you say is your own thought and your own intention."
Somewhat dubious, Damien moved his arms. This put a bit of comforting distance between them, though it wasn't much, and the sacrifice hurt his neck. "Then why haven't I told you to go away yet?"
The light moved as Tag shrugged. "Search me."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Damien wanted to clap his hands over his mouth and run as fast as his legs would take him.
Tag, obviously aware of this, chuckled softly and laid a palm on Damien's chest, fingers outstretched. "If I said 'yes', it'd be an understatement."
Swallowing hard, Damien felt his throat and chest constrict. "This is very uncomfortable."
"Well, of course it is, you went and moved your arms." Tag slipped his own arm under Damien's neck, not only taking back the distance Damien had won, but claiming even more of it. "Better?"
He couldn't move, not to shake his head, speak or even nod. No, he didn't want to nod. Why was he nodding?
He shut his eyes tight and waited for
he didn't know what. He'd lied to himself, it wasn't uncomfortable, but he didn't know what else to do. "Mnng."
He didn't try again, this was humiliation enough. Instead, he took another deep breath, and failed to release it properly. It caught in his chest somewhere near Tag's hand.
"If you don't hurry up and kiss me or do something proactive, I'm going to throw you in the river." Despite his words, Tag's voice was soft and nervous, dropping out of audibility occasionally.
"Why do you want me to?"
"Why don't you want you to?" Tag retorted, as if his question answered Damien's. He'd moved back a bit, but he looked so unhappy, the resulting guilt made Damien feel queasy instead of relieved. "It's almost as if you're doing it on purpose."
Damien couldn't think of anything to say. He was staring again. He knew it was an 'again' by the feel of it, but it was rather more like another segment in a continuous stare. "I'm not," was the only thing he could squeak out.
"Then you really don't
Why not?!" Tag moved his arm and pushed himself up, a good thing, as he was almost shouting now. "I'm not a jackanapes little girl claiming royalty and begging you to marry me."
"I know that, I'm not stupid." Damien started to sit up as well, but Tag pushed him back down, apparently more out of exasperation than anything else. Damien took the 'blow' with grace, even though the ground was far from the nicest thing he'd ever fallen on.
More than ever, regardless of his own comment, Tag looked and even sounded like a princess now, flat bare chest notwithstanding. Damien nearly laughed, except it might not have been taken well just then. It was difficult to contain himself when Tag huffed and tugged on a lock of his hair, though. "Maybe you're not stupid, but you are slow," he mumbled.
"Did you ever consider that I just don't want
Stunned silence. Tag stared down at him, mouth slightly open in abject surprise, looking almost horrified and definitely wounded. He closed his mouth, then tried to form several words, none of which had accompanying sound, then finally stopped. "You really are a cad," he said at last. "A devious pretender."
"What?!" This was really too much. Damien yanked himself upright, knowing his face was a humiliating shade of pink, and not quite caring. "I am not!"
"If you're trying to goad me into giving you what you want," he huffed, glaring at Tag. "It's not going to work." It might have been the first time he'd been genuinely angry with the incubus.
It was a long time before Tag answered. He tucked his chin against his chest and pouted at his hands in his lap. "
what will work?"
Damien's shoulders slumped as the guilt sunk back into the pit of his stomach. "We haven't left Cielan that far behind us, I'm sure there are plenty who would fight me for you"
"You wouldn't fight them. Not even if I asked you to."
He started. "Would you actually ask me to?"
"I'd ask you to want to
if I thought it might work." Tag lay out on the grass with his arms under his head, the same way Damien had lain before they'd started arguing. "It seems it wouldn't."
Damien watched him out of the corner of his eye, curiosity and self-reproach beleaguering him. "If you're just hungry, then wouldn't anyone do?"
Tag ripped up a clump of grass and tossed it at him, effectively scattering the tiny green blades over both of their legs. "I'm not hungry. I don't really need to 'eat' that often."
"Don't you pay any attention at all?" Damien expected Tag to get up and resume his advances, but he didn't move. "Or are you just one of those sad people who's never taken a lover?"
"I'm not sad! I just
"Oh." Tag didn't sit up then either. "If you haven't, then how do you know I'd be such a bad choice?"
Damien was going to say 'logic', but it didn't come out that way. "I don't know
" Feeling ridiculously inept and so self-conscious he could almost see himself, he leaned over Tag and wet his lips. "Aren't you, though?"
"Could be." Regardless of the change in their position, Tag looked bored, and still a little annoyed. "Hard to say when you won't make any choice at all."
The wind had died down, quieting the river. Damien could hear his heartbeat over it now, as much as he tried to calm it. He'd come this far, so the choice was made, it seemed. He could back out, but then he'd never know. As a scholar, there was nothing worse to him than cutting himself off from knowing things.
It was strange. That was his first thought, and although he hoped for a better one, it never came. He was too caught up to do any thinking. Tag's mouth was soft and pliant at the start, but then he grew bolder, not quite so cautiously submissive. He snaked an arm around Damien's waist, using the other to cup the back of his head, fingers tickling his neck.
Knees inexplicably weak and about as solid as water, Damien couldn't hold himself up anymore. He fell against Tag, who broke the kiss with a surprised, rather breathless laugh. "Warn me next time," he said softly.
"What makes you think there will be a next time?" Ears burning, Damien tried to push himself up so he could finally run, the way he'd initially intended to. It wasn't likely to happen though, not when Tag had an unexpectedly strong arm around him.
"Silly question," Tag murmured, all traces of his earlier anger and discontentment thoroughly expunged, replaced with an expectant smile. There was no significant space between them now, and Damien wondered how Tag could breathe. He didn't seem to have any trouble with it though, at least not enough to stop a second, marginally less awkward kiss.
In Which Orah Reorganizes
After Damien had gone after Tag, Orah had taken it upon herself to prevent Travis's figuring out what they were most likely doing. She was by no means an expert, but she did have sufficient knowledge of 'romantic relations' as Mandenry put them. Travis, hopefully, did not, in spite of his long-time traveling companion. The young man was enviably innocent in that area, murderous inclination set aside.
His actions against the edicada had done a bit to sway her opinion on that matter. She was still angry and upset, but it stung less. Perhaps the world was bigger than she'd always thought it was. She sat with her haversack supporting her lower back, listening to Travis tell her a story about an evil sorcerer and exploding chickens.
Although she'd never liked living chickens, some of his rather graphic descriptions made her feel a little sorry for the witless creatures. "Oh my," comprised most of her half of the conversation.
"Yup," Travis said, nodding as he polished a sword in his lap. The cloth he was using looked as if it had been a gift from a lord or lady. Or stolen from one. "And that's why you should never explode chickens."
"Why would anyone want to?"
He shrugged. "This guy did. He was kind of barmy, though, that might have been the reason."
"I guess it's as good a one as any, for a crazy sorcerer
" Orah gave herself a little mental shake and attempted a laugh. "You've seen a lot of things, haven't you?"
Travis nodded again, grinning like a crocodile. "I've spent the best part of my life traveling with Tag. We've got it good, you know. We get to go wherever we want, whenever we want."
She reached behind to adjust the slipping haversack. "Doesn't that get lonely, though?"
The hand that was rubbing the cloth over the sword's crossguard stopped. "I never really thought about it." He looked down at the sword, then dropped the polishing rag on the grass by his foot and sheathed the blade. "Is it important?"
Orah tried to remember if he'd ever said how old he was. Surely not younger than fifteen, he was too tall, only
he didn't seem even that old some of the time. "Travis? When is your birthday?"
"Soon enough," he said. "What's today?"
"Grimsday. I think it's the month of Bexley." She hadn't see a calendar since she'd left the healing house, but it still felt like an accurate guess.
Travis set his sword aside and appeared to be thinking very hard. Finally, he said, "Where's Tag? He knows when my birthday is."
It hadn't been very long since Damien had followed Tag. Whatever they were doing, Orah doubted they were ready to welcome any form of company. If the way they'd already been acting was any indication, Tag was probably still in the middle of sweet-talking and inveigling. She patted Travis's knee to distract him. "Never mind, I can ask him later. I only wanted to know because it's difficult to tell how old you really are."
Swelling with pride at this vague assertion, Travis literally puffed up his chest. "Because I'm so well-traveled and experienced, right?"
It would not have been at all polite to shake her head and say that it was because he was unbelievably immature. This was irrefutable, so all she did say was, "Right."
He seemed perfectly pleased with that, which was just fine with Orah. She was in a shaky place, metaphorically speaking. Tag had stalked off like a whiny kid, but there was Damien to cool him off and act as a distraction. There was no one to distract Travis.
A rustle in the trees to their left made her look up. She thought it might be a bird, but Travis didn't appear to agree. He drew his sword, dropping the scabbard back onto the grass, and stood in a ready stance, all in a fairly impressive instant.
"Who's there?" he barked. "We heard you. Come out!"
Another leafy rustle. Orah looked at the offending tree and blinked. It was a young elm, not overly full of leaves, and definitely not an adequate hiding place for anyone. "Travis, I don't think there's"
He cut her off with another, more authoritative bellow. "You can't fool me!" Then he continued in a snarl of angry language that Orah couldn't decipher.
The leaves were practically thrashing now. "Travis, stop that! It's probably just a bird." She didn't want to meet the bird that could make such a ruckus, but it could hardly be anything else.
It was. She shrieked and leapt behind Travis as a blue ball of light shot out of the tree. It emitted a high-pitched shriek of its own as it streaked around her head, then went on to circle Travis.
"This is no bird!" he shouted, apparently trying to shield her while also leading the glowing blue thing away from her. "It's a"
The shrieking drowned him out, but even as she covered her ears, Orah recognized a few of the words. At first they were just similar to or the same as the ones that Travis had been hollering. Then, as the cries grew even more incensed, more frantic, she thought she could make out a name she knew.
"Damien?" It came out in a whisper. As soon as she had said it, the blue ball of frenetic light rammed into her thigh.
"Damien? Damien! G" Then it tumbled into speech she couldn't comprehend, repeatedly head-butting her leg.
Using the hilt of his sword and his free hand tightened into a fist, Travis batted the surprisingly solid light away. "Leave her alone! She doesn't know where he is!"
Automatically, Orah opened her mouth to argue with him, but the bruises forming on her thigh shut her up. If this thing was looking for their Damien, he might be safest hidden away with Tag, by or in the river. Besides that, she and Travis would be almost as safe lying to this sphere of evanescent animosity.
Travis reasserted his claim to ignorance, and swung wildly with his sword again, with no more success than before. Then he grabbed Orah's arm and pulled her away from the light. Granted, she didn't know if she was much safer in his trembling, sword-less arm, but it was the thought that mattered most. Even though he didn't smell very nice.
Suddenly, the garbled screeching stopped, replaced by the much softer hum of magical workings. Orah cursed like a sailor and buried her face in Travis's chest. He really needed a bath. She pulled her head away immediately.
When she did, she saw the blue glow darting about a fixed area, leaving an iridescent trail that stuck in the air like marks on paper. After a few seconds it began to resemble a short woman with a squat but generous build. A few seconds more, and there she was, the lines colored in with ruddy skin and a dull reddish gold dress that shone with blue light. The effect was nearly purple, but not nearly enough.
The woman looked altogether too much like Orah's old caretaker Gdaja. Like the caretaker, this woman had a wide mouth even with her lips pressed into an impossibly thin frown, and her nose was like a shriveled red plum squished onto her pudding-ish face. Her hair, like straw in texture if not color, was yanked back in a merciless bun, a severe black hair pin keeping it in place. It all served to make her ears look elephantine and her face look pinched in spite of its saggy fatness.
When she cleared her throat, she sounded as though she were preparing to spit a chunk of mucus at the disgusted humans. "Where's Damien?" she demanded, her voice too high-pitched and scratchy to be called delicate or even feminine.
Orah felt Travis's arm tighten around her, and she forgave him for every smelly inch of his body. "You're a fairy godmother," she said, hoping none of her fear showed in her voice.
Travis held the sword in front of them, his arm quivering from the strain of trying to lengthen his reach. "I guess you did know," he whispered to Orah.
"I do now
" Her caretaker had never transformed into anything, let alone a ball of furious light. Orah added it to the list of things she did not like about fairy godmothers.
"What are you whispering about? Tell me where Damien is, or I shall thrash you soundly." The fairy godmother took on a priggish, hoity-toity tone, drawing herself up to her thoroughly unimpressive full height.
"Get bent," Travis answered succinctly.
To this, the fairy godmother had one response. She plucked a wand out of the air near her right ear and flicked it at them. "Rank upstarts!"
Orah tugged Travis down without thinking. He dropped his sword, but they both hit the ground just low enough to dodge the woven stream of lightning bolts.
Rather than let her stray projectile set a tree on fire, the fairy godmother flicked her wand again and sucked the magic back into it. "Cheeky little toads," she snapped. Then an evil light went on in her piggy eyes. "What a good idea I've had."
She flicked the wand at Orah.