tagSci-Fi & FantasyDragon (S)Layers Ch. 57

Dragon (S)Layers Ch. 57

byT_Silverwolf©

Interlude 2 - Through Diamond Eyes

"You'd be right to be skeptical of anyone claiming to represent a deity without a weapon on their hip.

You'd also be right to be wary of them."

-Unknown

~Leslie~

There was supposedly a fine line between bravery and foolishness and Leslie was pretty sure she'd not crossed it so much as smashed through it flailing and screaming, arcing flames on her way into a cozy little crater this side of insanity.

She stood at the throat of a well worn dirt path that trailed between burned husks of once ripe apple trees clutching an overhead branch as the three young men stared at her from the other side of the trail. A copse of trees in the distance was still burning throwing orange and yellow fingers of light into the evening sky and casting a heady mix of cinders and apple wood on the air.

Somewhere, somehow, she'd lost her mind and decided that opening her mouth was a good idea. 'Just happening across a casual act of vandalism neck deep in some backwater apple farm, nothing to see here!' What a brilliant idea shouting out had been. Well, it was too late to back out now, wasn't it? She drew in a lung full of sweet smelling air. "Well?" Leslie repeated her earlier question. "Somehow I don't get the feeling this is where I buy apple sauce, so what're we doing here?"

The three glanced at one another. If any one of them was over twenty, Leslie would've been amazed, but she'd always been a bad judge of age. What she was intimately familiar with however was the feeling of the tree in her hand and those around the boys; she could feel the way the elements of the tree were bound together, how they were tightly wrapped around a living core and despite being burned to a crisp, she could feel the subtle pulse of water being sipped from the ash covered soil.

In so many ways she was more apart of the world since Isira had personally blessed her, which was ironic considering how shut-in she'd been even a month before. Maybe that was the nature of the gift she'd been given- that she got to understand how things worked in entirely new ways. But then Isira's gift had many facets. . .

Leslie wasn't a tall or imposing figure, though she had taken good care of herself and, with Isira's tutelage she'd come to understand that she was reasonably attractive, even exotic if Leslie was feeling generous. Despite being in her forties, she had aged gracefully and could have easily passed for someone half her age, which must have been what the boys saw as they watched her, wondering if she'd tell the owner of the land what was going on or if they'd be able to overpower her before she got far enough to warn the farmer.

For all appearances she could've been anyone to them. Her frilly peasant's dress and leather bodice hid a great deal in their silken weave. Only those with magical affinity would've been able to single out the true nature of the artifact she was wearing. Another of Isira's 'gifts' even if that meant She'd tricked her new paladin into stealing it, it served as a lot more than a simple garment, for good or ill.

Eventually one of the boys spoke up, shrugging indifferently. "It's just McGreedy, he's got all this land and aint sharin with the village. Why should he be the only one who eats while we go hungry?"

Leslie frowned at that. "That's the best excuse you can come up with? What would your mother say, huh?"

He went quiet for a moment and shook his head. "Look, Tana didn't talk us out of it and neither're you gonna. Just head on back home and let your pa know you didn't see anythin when the crabby ol prick comes tah town want'n to know what happened." He punctuated his point by waving his torch and his buddies eased away so the jars of oil they were carrying didn't catch light. "Aint gonna hurt him, just show him we're people too!"

"Oh, is that all?" Leslie exhaled, gaining confidence with every moment that passed. "Look, I'm sure you think you're doing what's right, but what's going to happen when this fire gets out of hand and the entire village burns down?" Not that she had any idea where the hell it even was.

Another pause as the three glanced at one another. Eventually one of them said "It'll be fine. He aint gonna have anything t'do wit' us unless its pick'n his crop!"

"Then you realize how insane this sounds! You're putting yourselves out of work!"

"More like giving our parents time to do their own farming!"

"Oh, so that excuses everything, does it?" Leslie tried for her best matronly voice; something between an irritated chirp and nagging mother. "This is where I try to talk you out of what you're doing using some long winded example from my childhood about how my parents worked really hard for everything they had and didn't like it getting burned to the ground by some punks, right?"

That earned a genuine pause of uncertainty, the oldest of the group then ruined it by giving her a flippant little smile and laughing. "You kidding me? He stole this place from our great grandparents! He's a prick!"

Leslie glanced down the isle, left and then right. For a moment she wasn't quite sure what would come out of her mouth except that when she felt her voice coming to the surface she knew what sounded right. What felt right.

She was supposed to be a paladin after all, and while Isira hadn't given her clear instructions- or any, really- what she knew of the typical holy warrior it meant going out and acting on behalf of their deity. So that probably meant confronting shit head on. . .

Yeah.

What was the worst that could happen?

Leslie snorted at that idea, drew in a breath and gave the boys a smile. "So which way is his house, then?"

"W- What? What're you gonna do?"

"If I knew that I wouldn't be standing here, so let's pretend I do and I'll figure it out on the way."

"Don't hurt him!" One of the boys said. "Last time that happened he threatened—"

"You kiddn me? She probably wants his money. Look't her."

Leslie tisked. "Kiss your mother with that mouth, do you?"

"Hey-"

"Is for horses!" She finished off. "Now, let's pretend for a second I've lost my mind and decided I'd go tell your parents what kinds of bad, bad little boys they've raised-"

"You wouldn't-"

"Ah, ah, ah." She raised a finger. "Hear me out. Let's pretend I had lost my mind, do you think they'd want to hear that? Huh? I know it's hard, life isn't fair a lot of times but if you're willing, you can do a hell of a lot with your life. . ."

"Who're you to say we haven't already, huh?"

"There's a bush fire joke in here somewhere. Give me a second to find it; oh, right. Yeah, most soldiers your age have got a different kind of bush fire going on after having seen some of the world. You're too young to be this angry and upset."

The boys just shook their head in irritation and mild disbelief. "You're crazy."

"I get that quite a bit, actually. You know I once told a goddess I wasn't good enough to serve her?" At their vaguely puzzled reactions she opened herself up to the environment and felt around through the tree branch, teasing through the charred wood until she found the blossoming end- with some gentle urging it swelled to maturity and bloomed through the mess of charcoal into a full flower that itself wilted and gave way to a new apple in the span of moments. For her efforts she was rewarded with an ugly pinkish-yellow bulb of an apple that bowed its fragile branch until it snapped. Leslie caught the apple and dusted it on her lacy dress smiling. "She proved me wrong and gave me a chance."

The young men eyed her suspiciously now, gaze flicking between the apple and her with increasing unease.

"I'm not saying it's easy, I'm saying it's possible. I'll have a talk with him and you can stop burning his land- we'll forget we ever met to sweeten the deal, how's that?" Leslie released her hold on the tree drawing back her focus and hand at the same time. "Give it a chance, all right?"

Like so many others she'd encountered who'd witnessed her goddess's powers the three of them gave her a wide breadth, as if sliding back into the shadows of what they'd done would somehow protect them- she wasn't about to her to tell them she wouldn't hurt them, she'd made that mistake already. More than once.

At least they weren't trying to attack her. That was a plus.

"So do we understand one another?"

"Y- Yes'm."

"Good." Leslie tossed the apple up, caught it. "So I'll ask again, which way to his house?"

"T- That way, miss." The boy pointed down the trail. "J- Just please don't hurt him, he'll kill our families!"

One of the others who seemed far more fascinated with the display of power than frightened of it piped in. "Yeah! He really roughed up me pa when the harvest wasn't right."

Leslie furrowed her brow. "Then why the hell would you burn his apples? That seems kind of ridiculous, don't you think?"

"Uh-"

"He's got too many while we've all got nothin! It aint fair. . ." The third finally spoke though he was careful and every bit as distant as his friend.

"All right," Leslie's grey-white eyes turned towards the path. "Tell your folks that you saw a fire or something, I'll talk to- what was it, 'McGreedy?'"

"Ye- Yes'm."

"Okay. One last thing?"

"Huh?"

"Develop a trade, learn something that you can turn into making money and stirs your passions. Kind of a take my advice, I'm not using it situation, I know, but it'll serve you well." Of course it had served her well before everything went sideways in her life. She could at least hope they'd follow her words and hope even more that there were opportunities for them to find.

With nothing more to be said between them, the boys turned back to their village with glances back to make sure the 'scary' paladin lady wasn't following them. Leslie herself waited until they were off in the shadows before she allowed herself to relax, she peered at the burning tangles of light still fluttering in the distance. She had no idea how she could help with that, but at the moment it seemed the trees were spread out enough that there wasn't as much risk of catching the entire orchard on fire as she'd first thought.

Maybe she had time to speak to this man. Leslie turned on her heel and strolled off toward the house, taking a big bite of her fresh grown apple. She instantly regretted it as a wash of sour mash and thick black gunk like soupy rot splashed over her tongue. "Eughhh!"

She spit it out into the grass only to find it actually looked like chunks of apple. Another look at the fruit confirmed her expectations; the damned thing looked perfectly fine. Frowning, the older paladin eyed the apple and pinched off another chunk with her fingers. She just about took a bite but chickened out at the last moment and threw the entire thing into the shadows.

It wasn't like she was hungry. She hadn't been in weeks.

Whether it was a side effect of the armor dress or her goddess's blessing, she'd stopped being hungry or thirsty and even her sleep schedule had pretty much stopped being an 'issue'. It drove her nuts. Though in retrospect, the weeks she'd spent wandering the roads after leaving the sphinx's casino had given her a lot of time for introspection she doubted it would have been nearly as bearable without food or water. Neither of which she had coin to afford.

Yes, maybe it was better this way.

But she still missed food. And sleep. And maybe tea, too. . .

#

Leslie clomped up the steps to the three story brick and wood home several minutes later, careful to smooth out the pleats of her skirts before she rapped on the door several times. She waited a few beats and knocked again. And again.

"I promise I'm not in door to door sales!" She said as she eased her way to the side of the door out of the direct line of opening. "I happened into your orchard from the Old Miller's Path." She added in a quiet mutter, 'Or the creek of sharp pointy things as I like to call it.'

Something moved inside and she edged away further so as not to make herself a target in case the boys had been telling the truth that he was dangerous. It never hurt to be careful, and for all she'd been able to tell from the expansive building, whoever this man was he had the kind of money that could smooth over any questions about someone disappearing.

It wasn't the first time she'd been in this kind of situation- of course, the last time that'd happened her husband's debtors had come knocking. . .

It never hurt to be careful.

She was careful not to be seen and placed her hand against the doorframe, sliding her focus into it, feeling the pull of the slowly rotting wood trying to come undone from the frame at a glacial pace. It had the touch of other buildings that she'd encountered; that familiar blend of dead wood, paint and musk of rot. It was a loosely woven mesh of materials that had no direct relationship to one another or the world at large any more but still existed in their own frame of reference. Like a gown woven together from silk, cotton and wool; they could be configured to look nice but they didn't belong together.

Then she found something else. Something alive. Life itself had a very different weave to it and even in proximity its pulse could be felt like a knot in cheap thread. It stood out for its differences and bathed the entire mesh of dead wood in a wash of its own essence. It shifted left and right, the swell of vigor easing away and growing closer to the frame as whom-or what-ever was on the other side of the door tried to find the cause of the disturbance.

Leslie relinquished her invasion of the door and stepped back into plain view, waving lightly to the slotted glass that parted the door into three sections. Silently she pleaded that it wouldn't be a sphinx, that her pursuer hadn't caught up with and somehow tricked her into this place. "I'm not going to hurt you, but I'm not looking to be hurt either. Here's to hoping we're not weirdos, right?" She tried for her lightest tone.

After some seconds of hesitation she moved in closer and brushed her bangs back. "My name is Leslie and I know you're in there. So we're kind of stuck at an impasse; I leave and don't tell you about a pretty specific problem with your orchard, or I stand out here until day break and freeze my ass off. Can I meet you half way, maybe open the door so I can do my civic duty and then-"

She didn't even get the chance to finish before the heavy iron lock clacked open and the door slid to the side. The older paladin was fascinated by this for a moment and nearly missed the tired looking old man stepping around it, that was until he opened his creased mouth and spoke through the thick beard that concealed his face. "What the hell's the problem?"

Leslie was taken instantly by the gruff and wary tone that spilled from this man's lips, the kind of thing that wouldn't have been out of place in the throat of some homeless person back in Sorash. Despite this, however, his voice carried an undercurrent of strength and a rich mix of worldliness she'd seldom heard back home. Somehow and for some inexplicable reason Leslie found herself imagining him in a double breasted suit giving a lecture somewhere.

Maybe it was wishful thinking, maybe it was seeing the sad and tattered remnants of the clothing that he wore and the way he hunched his posture, looking slightly up to address her from the shade of his close fitting hood. There was more beyond that, there was something in his eyes, something rich and aware- alive with possibility.

"Well?!" He grunted hoarsely. "Some reason I'm outta bed so early?!"

Leslie furrowed her brow, doing her best to hide her gut reaction to hug the poor man. She'd been much the same way, though arguably much nicer about it, when others came to her fortress of solitude. However. . . .maybe there was a way to thaw the ice. She offered her hand lightly, the back facing up in the traditional eastern formal greeting. When he didn't move to take her hand she put on an empty smile and launched into her best speech: "I'm sorry I woke you, but I was walking by and I saw some trees on fire, I thought I'd check on whomever owned it and-"

"Well you did. Now kindly. . ." he started to close the door.

Leslie saw her chance and took it. Not that she was out to hurt anyone, but something in this tattered man felt familiar, it felt right and while she couldn't identify what it was, she understood it. That was more than enough to pique her curiosity. "I might be able to help, if you'd let me."

He paused, looking at her as though she'd lost her mind.

"I mean, sure wet bread probably has more capacity to lift things, but I may be able to help in other ways."

His gaze turned suspicious then. "Why?"

She was more than ready for that question; "Because I'm a glutton for punishment? My father raised me never to be shy of hard work and let's say I've had a recent uh, change of. . . .well, I don't know. I think it'd be the right thing to do, how's that?"

"Hmph," The old man eyed her a moment longer, sighed and for a brief moment he looked about ready to close the door once more. He paused when Leslie gave him a smile she really didn't feel. "What's it you expect? Money? I bet you want to be paid-"

Leslie shook her head. "I haven't said I could do it, only that I'd try. I'd be happy with a cup of tea and good conversation, or at least some excuse to say I wasn't set on fire or sold into slavery or something. I think that's fair, don't you?"

Again he paused, then quietly stepped aside allowing Leslie to enter which she did. Eventually. The main room to the building was larger than her entire home had been, but it appeared they'd had the same taste in décor. A ratty couch worn bare by age was thrust up against the side wall and while the twisting pillars that held up the second floor were of exquisite craftsmanship, the layer of dust clinging to them made it clear that no one had touched this place in years. There were little things, too, like the way the throw rug in the middle of the room was tossed out at an angle as though it'd been tripped over a few too many times and simply left instead of being fixed, and the scraped book cases that'd been ravaged and their contents splayed out across the ground in an arc. The air was tinged with the musk of rotting books.

Yes, they had similar decorators; desperation, anger. . . .loneliness. The kinds of movers and decorators that left holes in one's home as much as the owners' heart. Leslie was careful to hide her reaction, but she had no doubt it wore it in her body language. It was too familiar, too close to home not to.

The old man grumbled and muttered something, turning into what appeared to be a dining area with a flickering candle trying to cast some light over the furniture. Leslie crept up to the lip of the hall while trying to maintain her air of innocent interest. For all his neglect of the main area, a portion of the dining table was absolutely immaculate as was a small path leading to the kitchen. If nothing else he hadn't fully submitted to his depression, at least.

Maybe he wasn't too far gone. She ventured a little closer- that's when she noticed the way his clothing fell and the shadows played. His right arm was missing and he walked with the help of a cane, though in so doing he did stand taller than before. When he went to light another candle with the one on the table Leslie stepped around the doorway.

"So, may I ask your name?"

The man paused momentarily, glanced back at her.

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