Alexia - 1999-4-26
lexa snuggled closer to her horse, shivering but not from cold. The kitten on her shoulder mewed and rubbed its head at the side of her face and she reached a hand back, picking it up and sitting it on her knees, scratching an ear. The cat gave a little worried purr and leant into the hand. It was time to be moving on but it didn't feel safe to move from where she was, sitting against her horse, knees drawn up to her chest. She hadn't wanted to stop but had had to; she'd ridden for more than a day without a break except to rest her horse. But exhaustion had surpassed even the fear eventually and they'd stopped for a while. In the two and a bit days after that, she'd stopped to sleep twice, including this time, in a little clearing, close to the road but hidden from it.
Elexa mewed back at the cat fearfully, placed the creature on her shoulder and stood hesitantly. The horse clambered to its feet and shook itself while she quickly mounted and pulled its head around towards the road. Tenderheart snorted as he picked his way through the brush and then out onto the road, breaking into a canter, glad to be moving again, wanting, as did his rider, to be as far from the ‘dark-thing' as possible. Here they were riding through the woods, which were treed with beeches and oaks, inviting and light, which helped to calm both a little. Elexa shook her head as her thoughts wandered. She was not going to think about that. The cat on her shoulder made a little distressed noise, catching her mood as the pictures refused to leave her alone.
Four days ago they'd all be safe at home, sitting in the little grove by the stream, close on the main house of the estate when something went wrong in the house. The feeling, unclear but growing worse had sent Elexa running, panicked, back to the house, catching up a stout tree limb on the way. As she rushed through the open front doors and towards the feeling, which was coming from Redel's work room, she paused to snatch a knife from the desk in the anteroom then crept towards the workroom door, the feeling intensifying. Putting a shaking hand on the doorknob, she started, as Edex, her mage tutor, entered the room behind her. He'd come across to her and patted her shoulder, opening the door himself.
The next part wasn't quite certain in her mind now. She knew she had craned into the room, desperate to check if Redel was all right and to defend her if need be. Objects and papers were whirling around in the air and the room was dark, despite the curtains blowing out of the windows in the unnatural wind. And there had been something in the room with them. Something that radiated ‘dark' and ‘thirst.' Redel was lying on the floor and there was nothing coming from her; she was dead. Edex had tried to do something that she didn't understand and then she lost all feeling of him as well.
Then the was dark and flames and her on Tender, galloping down the road, the cat peeking up at her from the pommel of the saddle, where it was crouched down against her thigh. Tender had run all out for a long time and had been running for a long time even before that, she guessed. Eventually he slowed reluctantly, snorting and tossing his head unhappily. Elexa could feel the shape of the knife handle through the leather over the small pocket flap on the side of the saddle, and that was all she had with her except for the smell of smoke and fire. For food, Tender had been content with grass from the wayside and she had made do with early berries, but knew they would both need something more and soon. There would be a town or a village in about another hour's ride, off to one side of the road. So far she had passed them at a canter, not wanting to be around people.
She would have to stop eventually though: have to try going to a village... But the thought of being in a village alone was terrifying and she had no idea what to do next except ride and keep riding, though she realised she was now in the north of Melanos and headed towards the border with Torrigan. Torrigan where they didn't like magic... But she couldn't turn back. Maybe it was just remembered fear that made the hairs stand up on the back of her neck, but she thought she could still feel the dark thing somewhere behind them...
But what would she do? What was there? She wished Redel were there: wished it so hard it hurt in her chest. The cat mewed at her strictly and she tried to regain some control and not think about it. Don't think about it; don't think about it, blank, blank, blank, blank, streams, bluebells... Eventually she opened her eyes again. She'd already set three fires along the way because of her roaming thoughts. If she was going to stop at a town she had to be in control. A town: with people, and men. Lots of people--all strangers--and without Redel.
She swallowed at that thought and tried to push away wanting for her surrogate mother, but the bleakness was spilling in with questions of 'what was there to do now? What was there left without Redel?' Her whole life had been built around the safety of Redel's presence--their estate and Redel with her whenever they went off it... or Edex. Sweet Edex, who could never seem to remember anything and had a mind as sharp as a bird's eye when it came down to what was important. Tears threatened again and she pushed them down. Crying would only get her more upset and that might lead to a fire. But what was there for her? She hadn't wanted anything more than what she'd had... She didn't want to have to be out among people... She just wanted the two people who were her pillars of safety.
What was she fit for? She couldn't return to her own people in shame: just bringing trouble being no use for anything. And what else was there was would even be tolerable? Maybe it would be better to just find something high and jump off... if she wasn't coward enough to use her wings, that was. They gave her little flight but enough to stop from dying from a fall... Tender snorted and turned his head, butting at her knee with his nose, the cat mewing constantly. Yes, she did have them but what else? Would she just live wild? She couldn't earn a living, couldn't be around people even if she could find a living in a town... if she didn't die of fright being surrounded by so many people and so many chances for things to happen. Bad things like the hot, dusty place.
Tender jumped and skipped sideways, whinnying in distress and stopped, pawing at the ground. Elexa stared at the bush that was being engulfed by flames to her left and wanted the flames to go out now. And when the fire was gone almost wanted it back again. Maybe one day it would all go wrong and she would catch fire and she didn't want to die that way.
She wiped a hand across her face angrily and tried to blink back the other tears; she was just exhausted. She had to stop and rest properly, get some proper food. The fear that had carried her this far wasn't going to last much further. She'd decide what to do after she'd rested, whether the decision was, in the end, to die or not. She urged Tender into a canter, being too exhausted to deal with the bumping of a trot. Tender replied by tossing his name and complying. He was very tired too but he'd had more food than she had, being able to eat any greenery around them and he had reserves that her slight body didn't hold out. Sired by the two Samaran horses Redel had taken with her when leaving her home country, Tenderheart was a 'thoroughly unsuitable beast for such a little slip of a thing.' That's what the stable-master had once said, not realising she was rubbing Tender down and overhearing.
She supposed she did look rather odd being so small and Tender being very high. But Tender loved her and wouldn't have anyone else. The stable-master had been trying to break him and hadn't succeeded. Elexa hadn't had to. She didn't believe in ‘breaking' a horse. She had made friends and Tender had agreed to let her ride him; it was as simple as that. And Tender had kicked up dust in the stable-men's faces as they took out on their first ride together. He was her horse. Or she was his. It didn't really seem to matter. Tender tossed his main again, quickening his pace, probably smelling the town. Elexa knew he'd start prancing, tired as he was, as soon as they got there. He was terribly vain, though with good cause. Heavy muscled across the chest and front legs, he had narrow but powerful hind quarters and all the beautiful bone structure of the Samaran breed. Deep red coated, maned and tailed, he had a pretty gait and was all in all pretty much a perfect specimen. Except for the fact that he tended to bite and kick people he didn't like, which was almost everyone because they didn't defer to him or didn't try to make friends. The stable-master had called him demon-breed, pretty as hell but wicked to the heart and therefore not worth a damn. Elexa did agree that he was fickle, obscenely vain and often stubborn and difficult, but he wasn't wicked. Never with her, not in the three years she'd known him--from foal to stallion. The stable-master had crowed with laughter at the name she had given him, but it was what she ‘felt' from him--that gentle feeling of caring that he offered out to her.
Thinking about Tender helped until she was as calm as she thought was possible. Then the town came into sight. Her heart contracted within her and she swallowed hard on fear as Tender, true to form, picked up his pace and started prancing. "Silly horse." Tender snorted. He might be tired but he'd been four days without company and there were females here. Elexa giggled as she realised that was the direction his images were turning. Tender was never that tired, not with a young male's boundless energy. She closed her hands tight about the reins, feeling herself go stiff with fear and tension, eyes darting about as they passed the first houses. She hadn't realised that it was quite dark until she saw the sky against the brightness of the torches burning in the streets here.
It wasn't a huge town though it didn't seem so to Elexa, who hadn't been off the estate at all in the past year except to ride in the woods. Redel had tried taking her into the next villages, hoping she would get used to them and then be able to progress to visiting the town, maybe making friends of her own age. Elexa had hated every minute of those journeys out with people staring and the barrage of bodies, noise and thoughts. She'd been asked to leave most of the villages rather quickly after setting minor fires and eventually Redel had given up, not wanting to infuriate their neighbours and Elexa had been quite content to remain at home. Redel, disappointed had to admit ultimately that she agreed with animals a lot more than with people and if that made her happy. Redel had helped her heal as much as she could but recognised that Elexa's happiness in isolation, while not normal, was still happiness of a sort and one that kept the child safe. And, at the end of the day, the elderly mage had been lonely and having the child around all the time had been a true blessing. She'd never thought that Elexa would have to leave and so had never pushed her to prepare herself.
But now Elexa was finding herself lost in the world that she hadn't wanted to return to, epitomised by the town in front of her which made fear flutter in her chest and protective aggression well to the fore. Taking a deep breath, she tried to keep herself from bolting, relaxing marginally as she passed through the rather dark main street, craning to look deeply into the shadows at the bases of the houses. Eventually, homes gave way to shops and then she came out into a brightly lit square. It was a rather pretty place to look at, cobbled all over with a stone fountain in the middle. To one side an inn sign swung, creaking, and noise and light spilt out from the bay windows around the door. It was a larger version of the villages near the estate. This square would be full of stores during the daytime, she knew and was glad she'd come when it was dark and the market place was quiet.
For a while she held Tender still as she looked around herself, trying to get used to the idea and the ‘feel' of the place before venturing further. She would probably have to brave the inn for food as it looked like the only place that was open. But it would be crowded and loud--she could hear it from outside and didn't know that she could manage to keep steady with people shouting around her. Loud noises in particular were fire hazards for her. But Tender was pawing at the cobbles, snorting and focused on ‘food' and ‘females'. Sliding off his back, she took up the reins and faced the inn, taking a deep breath.
Then the door opened, letting three men tumble out, still chuckling. Encouraged by the laughter she let Tender pull her forwards a few steps, not knowing if she could have stopped him if he wanted to. Then the street went silent. Tender stopped and backed up a few paces, snorting. The men were watching them now, silently, then their eyes turned hungry and one staggered forward a step. "Hello, my pretty. What is such a pretty little stranger doing here all alone? I dare say you'd like someone to be your friend. Show you around. Such a pretty little girl." The other two moved forwards then and Tender skitted sideways. Elexa's heart, which had frozen with terror at the feelings coming from the three men, jumped. She felt her breathing quicken dangerously and tried to think about streams and sunlight. She stepped closer to Tender and walked forwards a few steps, stopping when she saw that two of the men were standing on either side of her, the other in the front, leering. "Why so scared, my pretty?" She could smell the alcohol from where she was standing and the feelings coming at her intensified at this close distance. The man grinned, showing yellowed, cracked teeth. "Nothing to be afraid of my pretty," he said. But his mind turned towards a picture. a picture that started just like this and ended just like the pictures from Samara. and everything went very cold and still in her mind.
Then the stable of the inn burst into flames. The men started, looking round, swore and ran from her as fast as their drunken footsteps would let them as people burst out of the inn and the buildings around it, probably worried that people would blame them. Someone ran for the stable. Everyone was shouting, angry and frightened. Elexa slipped off Tender's back and pressed into the shadow of a wall, trying to still her terrified breaths. There was something horribly familiar about the burning building, roof falling at one point, exposing timbers. She started shaking as she realised that it looked just like the estate, the last time she had seen it. People had been running from the staff quarters, shouting and screaming, while Tender had stood, nudging her with his noise until she mounted and then he took her away. The following blur probably had an equal amount to do with being drained as with shock. Her home. Her home burning.
The cat dug its claws in, making her jump and bringing her back to the present. Tender whuffled gently into her hair and dropped his head over her shoulder as she fought for control to at least not fuel the blaze further. She didn't think she could put it out. Not with the pictures from the drunk's head floating around and intertwining with fragments of memories and the image of the estate burning. The fire did die down a bit but the pavement at her feet started sparking. Tender pawed at the flames, his fear just fuelling her own and stopping her from bringing herself further under control. She slid a hand under his mane and stroked his neck, projecting ‘blank' as hard as she could without fearing that the townspeople would all forget about the fire. That had happened in one of the excursions to the village--she'd tried to calm herself with a projection and everyone in the bucket chain had stopped, blinking confusedly at each other, one dropping a bucket on another's foot. She clapped a hand over her mouth as a thin, hysterical giggle tried to escape and tried to imagine Edex talking to her about control.
Edex was eternally patient with her. When something went wrong, he'd just smile and pat her hair with a gnarly hand and tell her to try again. He had never told her off, even when she'd been waking everyone on the estate with projection dreams thought of him as a father but as a friend--her closest friend. There was something about Edex that was ageless, but very human, from his dry sense of humour to his life, which she'd seen all of. The idea of having a man around her, even one so gentle and old, had terrified her when they'd met. To get her to trust him, Edex had opened his mind and memories to her, fully, something that she later had been a great risk with how unstable she was. Her fear that he would want the same was thankfully dispelled when Redel asked the question; Edex had admitted quite freely that she was too unstable for that to be viable. And after that, the day they had met, they'd quickly become friends: Edex an avuncular, comforting figure, who found pleasure in her excitement and enthusiasm.
The sparking was dying down slightly, she realised, rising when she wondered at her seeming lack of grief. She quickly tried to quell that and trace her thoughts backwards. Think of him alive and forget the rest: none of it happened. Loss boiled beneath a thin veneer of calm for a while, the sparking staying manageable, and all of this in little more than a few heartbeats. Time seemed to forget itself when she was so panicked, not operating to its usual parameters. Turning back towards the stable she saw someone duck out of an alley and run into the stable.
Copyright (c) 1999-2000 Abigail Laughlin and the members of the Circle of Stone.