Yep, next chapter already. :)
Hopefully, I can finish up the rough draft of this by February of 2010 but who knows...sometimes I can speed up the pace and finish a story fast. Sometimes, every chapter is a struggle.
“Kinda scrawny, aren’t you?” the Healer said.
Arioch swallowed his pride, though he clenched his hands at his side. “Aye, but I can work.”
Leslan took a step toward him. Sure and who sent you then?”
The man paused, head cocking to the side like an inquisitive bird. “You don’t say.”
The Healer turned away, rummaging in a drawer. Arioch caught himself standing at attention, his feet drawn sharply together. He released the breath he had been holding, and forced himself to relax.
Leslan stood as tall as Arioch, but with broader shoulders and a stocky build that advertised his strength, even if the gruff Healer wanted to hide it. This, combined with a mane of tawny brown hair, made him more lion-like than human. He radiated authority as strongly as Endry.
Leslan turned to face him again. “Can you read?”
He glanced him over. “I suppose you take orders, even from a Healer?”
“You’ll do, for now. Come back tomorrow morning, and we’ll see how it goes.”
“Don’t.” Leslan shook his head. “It’s for Rometh’s sake I’m even bothering with an Eastar.”
“You don’t believe the stories, do you?”
The Healer snorted. “Poppycock. Of course not. It’s that most Eastar don’t stay in one place for long.”
“I’m marrying Athelia.”
“That means nothing either. You could still uproot her and leave.”
Arioch bit back a sigh. There was no convincing him it seemed. “Tomorrow morning?”
“Aye. Good day to you. Until the day dawn.”
Arioch blinked. It had been a long time since he had heard the traditional invocation. “And the…the Star arise.”
Leslan’s eyes narrowed. Arioch hurried out. More questions. Everyone he ran into seemed to be suspicious or questioning, even Rometh.
With what scanty silver that remained after paying the shaman, Arioch ate a meal at the inn. He stayed in the corner of the common room, with his back to the wall, as far from the other villagers as possible. They studied him, squinting in his direction or muttering among themselves but, more importantly, they left him alone.
Retrieving Ambris, Arioch hurried back to Athelia’s cottage. Amber light gleamed in the windows, beating back the drooping wings of dusk. He stabled Ambris again, did his best to shake the sand from his boots and clothes, and then stepped into the entryway. Prudence suggested informing her he was here, before proceeding any farther. Arioch rapped a knuckle against the inside of the door. “Athelia?”
Rustling in the main room preceded a sigh. Athelia appeared, glancing at his disheveled appearance with a frown. Her hair was bound up again. Arioch felt a twinge of disappointment, which he brutally shoved down.
“Have you eaten?” Athelia said.
This conversation feels familiar. “At the inn.”
“Several hours ago?”
“Yes.” He bit his lip to keep from saying ma’am. Arioch felt like a little boy reporting to his mother with torn clothes and a bloody lip. Athelia didn't scold him, however.
Shaking her head, she gestured to the washroom of before. “By the time you’re done, I’ll have something for you.”
“You don’t have to fix me anything.”
“You’re entirely too thin.” She waved a hand at him. “Go on.”
Arioch didn’t bother arguing. It never worked anyway. Once a woman got an idea in her head, no amount of work would get it out again.
He scrubbed at the sand and grime as best he could. The water was cool, which he appreciated, but not very helpful beyond that. The grains clung to his hair, dotting the black in uneven splotches. His skin itched. With a sigh, Arioch left it as it was and crossed into the kitchen.
Athelia looked up as he stepped into the room. She shook her head. “You really must get a linka.”
He shrugged. A familiar burn fluttered in his chest. Turning his head, Arioch coughed once, but did not yield to the burn beyond that. Athelia set a plate of food in front of him. He was too hungry to take notice of what it was.
When he had finished eating, and returned the plate, Arioch headed back into the main room. Athelia followed. She studied him thoughtfully. “Arioch, could you come here.”
He glanced at her over his shoulder. “Why?”
“I want to see something.”
That didn’t make him feel better. “What?”
With an exasperated sigh, she moved closer to him. Athelia wrapped her hand around his wrists and brought his arms up. Arioch stiffened. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to guess how much fabric I need.”
“For a linka,” she snapped. “Unless you like tramping sand all over the house.”
He felt his face flush. “Sorry.”
Her tone softened. “It’s fine. Eastar doesn’t have the winds as bad as we do here.”
She stepped back. Her gaze turned introspective. He saw her tick off numbers on her fingers, mouthing some measurement under her breath. Athelia turned away. “How did things go?”
Arioch shrugged. “The blacksmith, Rometh. He likes you a lot.”
Athelia chuckled. “You could say it that way.”
“He invited us to come over after the...” he hesitated. “After the wedding.”
Her shoulders twitched. He knew she had winced, even without seeing her face. Changing the subject, Arioch continued. “Lord Akbar is different, but endurable. And I spoke to Leslan, running errands and such.”
She glanced at him. Her eyebrows arched. “Leslan? The Healer? He’s not too fond of Eastar.”
“Aye.” Arioch raked a hand through his hair. “I wish Rometh had mentioned that before I went over there.”
“I see.” The edge of her mouth twitched in a suppressed smile.
Arioch pretended not to notice, though he couldn’t resist a quick jab. “The shaman said three days. Is that all right with you or...”
Athelia cringed visibly this time, and then faced away from him again. Her voice was soft. “That’s fine.”
The upper hand on her wasn’t very pleasant. "Athelia, I--" The burn in his chest flared again. He winced and bit his lip. When it eased again, though not by much, he relaxed. “I’ll go back into town tomorrow. Do you need anything?”
She glanced at him. “Some linka fabric, about three yards I would say. I don’t keep that on hand.”
Mentally, Arioch counted the silver in his bag. Not much at all. “How much do you think that will run?”
He glanced at her. She smiled. “There are several traders. All of them like to gab, and to wheedle on prices.”
Athelia shook her head. “Don’t pay more than five for a yard. And mention that you’re from here, or going to…be married soon.”
Arioch ignored the subtle pause. “Why?”
“Strangers get doubled prices.”
“Friendly place,” Arioch muttered under his breath.
Athelia studied him again. Arioch knew she could not have heard him, but the steady look unnerved him.
The burn expanded in his chest. A bird of fire, spreading hot wings across his ribs.
Arioch winced, beat it down, but this time, it did not ease. Rubbing the ache over his heart, he clenched his teeth against the rising cough. He tried to force it down again, without success, coughed once, and knew it was a mistake. One became two, and then transformed into a miserable coughing fit.
“Arioch? Are you all right?”
He waved a hand at her, but could not answer.
“Moment...” he wheezed. “Give me…”
He felt her hand on his shoulder, guiding him into the chair. Slumping there, he gasped and coughed until he regained control again. Athelia hovered near him. “Are you all right?”
He shook his head. No way to explain. “Nothing. I’m fine.”
She didn’t look convinced. “Arioch...”
“I said I’m fine,” he growled.
Athelia’s frown made him want to cringe. “No, you’re not. But you are stubborn.”
He glanced at her. “You said difficult before.”
“That too.” She crossed her arms over her chest, scowled for a moment, and then sighed. “Sleep here again.”
“I will not.” Not out of pity.
Arioch stood. “I won’t.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, you will.”
“I will not!”
“You don’t have to shout.”
Arioch clenched his teeth against the hot words rising to his mind. If she were one of his fellow soldiers, he would simply curse and glower until one of them relented. With Athelia, it was not so simple.
She tsked at him. “I’m sorry that I care what happens to you. You are going to be my husband in three days.”
He cringed. She continued without pausing. “I thought, because of that cough, it would help if you slept where it was warm and clean. My mistake.”
Arioch glared at her. “I don’t like pity!”
“I don’t like shouting!” Her face flushed. Arioch couldn’t stop the grin. Her blush deepened, and she looked away.
“I’m sorry,” Arioch said softly.
Athelia glanced at him. He repeated it.
“Th-that’s quite all right. I should have…you don’t have to stay with me, yet.”
“I want to.”
She blinked, studying his face. Arioch cocked his head. She was acting as if she didn’t believe him. “You’re kind, even when I shout.” The blush returned. Arioch liked it very much. “And you’re lovely in your own right.”
Her eyes snapped to him, widening. “I am not.”
“Endry has never chosen an ugly woman.”
Her face fell. “Endry thinks I’m comely.”
Arioch caught the emphasis, though he couldn’t guess why. “Aye. I’m sure he does.”
She turned away. “The blanket is on the chair, if you need it.”
When she walked toward her room, Arioch called out to her. “Good night, Athelia.”
She sighed. “Good night.”
Arioch curled up in the same place as before, but did not fall asleep right away. He complimented her, and she acted like he had hurt her feelings. Arioch snorted.
Women. Who could understand them?