Surfacing Ch. 06byEtaski©
Author's Notes: This story is erotic fantasy written by Etaski. I reserve the right to be listed as the author of this story, wherever it is posted. If found posted anywhere except Literotica.com with this note attached, this story is posted without my permission. (c) Etaski 2013
This is 12 Lit pages long; even longer than Sufferance Ch 15. Hm. It is not the destination but the journey, perhaps? Please enjoy.
We each accepted that all were watching the other; I'd started it by riding the horse backward as Gavin led us out of the narrow mountain valley. I liked that there was no pretending, and enjoyed even more that none but Kurn made it a point to hold my gaze for an unnatural stretch. It was easy to smile at the moment and it contrasted sharply with my company, so I kept at the least a small, contented smirk inside my hood, and a full grin where appropriate.
I was having a good time; I did not realize before meeting Sarilis that this all might be so entertaining.
In return, Kurn's face hardened, Castis tried for cool observation; Rithal more or less ignored it, and Mathias showed just enough fascination to serve my purposes later.
"Enough, apprentice." The Hellhound kicked his stallion forward with a burr and a snort as he moved out in front. "No more undead, you do not need to lead until we get closer to Manalar."
Gavin shrugged very slightly and said nothing, doing nothing as the Ma'ab gestured his brother forward, who coaxed Mathias along with them. I overheard them suggesting that Mathias help keep watch for game as well as scout ahead. Rithal glanced at me, and I back at him, and he eventually made his way just ahead of Gavin's horse. There was no one behind us now, no one behind me. It was safe to turn around and be more comfortable for a while, as we had such a long way to go.
A horse's hindquarters were among the broadest and most round I'd seen on a beast of burden; I thought perhaps I could swing a leg around one way until I was sitting sideways. Easily done...but then Gavin was in the way to prevent my other leg from coming around again. A good way to dismount, but not so for turning around.
"Slow a moment, Gavin," I said over my shoulder. "I will turn now."
"Uncomfortable, is it?" he grumbled.
"Not bad, but I will have no purchase if you kick the beast into run."
The mare resisted a bit in allowing the other horses move forward without her but came to a stop at last and I used one hand on Gavin's shoulder and another on the horse's rear end to come to a crouch and turn once again. It was not as easy as the first time.
"I do hope you don't wriggle this much as a rule," the apprentice said. It seemed he was in a perpetually sour mood, regardless if he was short of sleep.
"I do not ignore my body's needs, I will move as needed," I answered, loosely wrapping arms around his torso and I felt him tense.
I felt something made me pause as well. He was wearing some firmer form of protection beneath that tattered, grey robe.
"Hm. Come, Gavin, catch us up."
He kicked his mare and we moved forward again at a very quick walk, as if the animal was indeed anxious to catch up to the others. I could only barely see over Gavin's shoulder if I straightened my back and stretched up, especially since he wasn't slouching with me sitting behind him. Why were male humans so tall?
Really, I only had to remind myself of the bounty of flora and fauna around me, as well as the unlimited ceiling above us, to answer that idle complaint. I was curious to see a female human at some point to compare.
"You were right about Kurn wanting to lead," he observed.
I was confused. "I did not guess. He said exactly so."
He grunted. "And compliance equals agreement?"
"To a point, in ones like Castis and Mathias." I smiled even if he couldn't see it. "I wager you know better, apprentice. Had you any poison that would escape Sarilis's detection, you would have used it, yes?"
He didn't say anything at first, as we could see the other horses in the trees ahead of us now, though they had never been out of earshot. Before we caught up and dropped the conversation, however, Gavin did add one thing.
"He has developed resistance to poisons over the years, likely in response to meeting your Elder."
I smiled to myself. Notes such as this were exactly why I wanted time with the apprentice before acting against his master.
After we diverged from the meager cart trail that had been called a road, turning South rather than continuing North toward the nearest town where Gavin usually got supplies, I wondered for half of that first day why we rode horses in the mountains at all.
Considering how often we needed to take the long way around a trench versus the direct route, for how jarring the ascents were as the horses heaved their heavy way up a slope and how much of a test of nerves it was to lean back and let the beast pick her way down—with regular slips of its single-toed hooves—I was certain that I could make much better time on my own two feet.
I also genuinely missed my sure-footed guarro in the Underdark. This terrain would be no challenge for him...if he were adapted to Sunlight.
"Why do you all ride these creatures?" I asked lowly when our line had space enough to be less bunched.
Gavin paused as if considering the question. He did not understand. "What else would we ride?"
"In these mountains?" I asked with some incredulity. "These horses cannot be natural to them. We climb faster with our own limbs."
The apprentice considered that as well. It was a new thought for him. "They will be more useful when we reach more hills and flats and we can let them run."
"Is that where horse is found wild?" I asked. "Not dense forest and slopes. Those are for lighter, cloven-foot creatures. Deer, goat, and such."
"Now you mention it...yes. But I know of no tamed riding goats or deer for mountain travel. Perhaps we should ask Rithal what his kind uses?"
I barely caught the tone of his voice; he was teasing me in that deadpan way of his. I took the other tangent instead. "And what kind is Rithal? What do you mean?"
"Mountain dwarf," he answered.
"Instead of what?"
A small shrug. "Hill. Arctic. Jungle."
I felt my pulse rise somewhat at the opening of such a subject. "Tell me of them, apprentice. What you know."
"Not great detail, I'll admit," Gavin said.
"And I know not at all. I am interested."
The necromancer's apprentice certainly was a scholar at heart; my asking to know what he knew did not trigger that sour pulse of his. In some way, he liked to show how much he knew. Much like my mage back home.
"We may see Hill dwarves where we are going... you know what a hill is, don't you?"
"Rounded bumps of land, smaller and less treacherous than mountains."
"Good enough. The arctic and jungles are too far from here; we won't see them."
"Have you before?"
"I've never seen them, only read about them. Think of this larger land as the moderate one, with weather that changes frequently but not extremely, and it lies between two extremes that change very little. Extreme cold with unending snow and ice, and extreme heat that will smother you."
My brows drew down. "And dwarves live there?"
"As do others, just in fewer numbers. I should think one must be determined and more durable than most to stay in such places."
I pondered this, trying to imagine it as the burdened horse picked her way carefully along behind the others. If this part of the Surface was the more tolerable in-between...it was already more extreme to me than the underground, where weather did not touch and the ambient temperature remained consistent with only the movement of elemental air or water or fire to change the quality of the stone.
All the Surface was exposure and a mix of the elements...but Gavin was telling me there were places more exposed than this. Like the red sand dunes beneath a bright Sun in a clear blue Sky. No snow and very dry, extreme heat however I was not certain what Gavin meant by "smother," so perhaps...
"Is the 'jungle' covered in red sand?" I asked.
I saw Gavin's brow draw down in confusion as he looked over his shoulder. "Sand? No...a jungle has even more green plants than here. It is choked with greenery and water, very wet."
I blinked and glanced around again. To imagine such a place...
He said, "I had not mentioned it because I don't know of any desert dwarves, but if you talk of a place of red sand, it's likely a desert. Another environment we will not find near. Heat in the day, very cold at night, but dry. No water. Few plants or life of any kind to be found amongst those sandy dunes."
"Desert," I repeated.
"You know of 'red sand' but don't know what the land is called?" he asked with some incredulity.
"I have only been on the Surface a short time, apprentice," I cooed, covering that slight twinge of discomfort at his being quite right. "I say I am doing well, yes?"
"Your kind must keep to themselves quite a lot."
"It is a far way, Gavin. Imagine yourself going underground when you have no way to see except to light a torch and show all hunters where you are. How dangerous would it be for you and how far would you travel?"
He grunted. "Point taken."
"So the red sand dunes are a desert."
Gavin nodded. "South and West."
"The direction we head now."
"If you kept going for another few months and found enough water. But there is nothing there. Humans try to cross to trade, perhaps, but otherwise skirt it if they can. No dwarves I've ever heard of. Just red sand and scorpions."
Gavin let out a breath, apparently at the edge of his patience for sharing all his knowledge at one time. "A desert arachnid. I think it would look to you something like... a flattened crayfish. It scuttles about with a set of pinchers, but with a long tail and poisonous stinger."
"Crayfish," I murmured, using the description to try to link it with something I'd know... "Is it colorless in light?"
"Yes. They live in dark caves and swim where there is plenty of water."
I nodded; I knew the creature then. So a "scorpion" was flatter and poisonous and could survive on little water in sand...
"Like spiders, maybe," Gavin interrupted my thought, "they're small but deadly. Unlike a spider, they hunt and spin no webs."
My mind seemed to quiet down as that link teased my imagination. I tried to remember what I could of my dreams where I'd seen the desert...Auslan's dreams, as it turned out. I'd had one such dream while on the Surface, resting inside Tamuril's forest dwelling, with the running horse and the grey spot on the horizon. Would I have more such dreams? What was the significance to dream of a place I had never seen before and was reported to be one of the most hostile on the Surface?
This returned to my mind several times as we rode along and I watched the land around me with my hood up. The place in my dreams shared a venomous, eight-legged hunter, a bit like the spiders I carried with me, but made for the Sunlight.
With Rithal's subtle nudging, Kurn found easier hollows and flatter areas following streams next to which to ride, the mountains rising on either side of us. I could smell the water and the grass along with the stone; I breathed in deeper the overall scent of the landscape, so much more complex than underground. The constant pace with only brief stops for food and water, stretching and passing waste, allowed for a lot of time to prod Gavin for conversation, and if he was unwilling or reticent, I could leave him be to consider other things.
The horse allowed me to conserve energy, which meant that I needed to eat less. That was good since I had not had much time to forage this day. I would have time during the night, as I already knew I would not rest in reverie nearly as long as these men would—and that would likely be up in a tree somewhere unless I found a den or something. Water was plentiful right now in that we remained close to a source which was leading us out of the mountain range.
The Sun was warmer than it had been when I'd first arrived on the Surface; I used my hood constantly and tolerated the dull ache behind my eyes that remained even after these months. When I noticed that I looked forward most to the shaded parts beneath the trees, and grimaced when we left the shadow and passed long just grass and rock, it was clear that I was starting to feel overly warm in direct Sun.
Elder Rausery had suggested ways of keeping cool in our durable, mottled black and grey outfits. Traveling at night was one option as Summer encroached...if I was walking by myself. The horses were not night creatures and would likely stumble and break a leg traveling rough terrain at night. My companions also were not adapted to such travel; at best, it would be inefficient and slow. They would likely get lost.
Wearing less was another option, letting the air touch the sweat, but the Sun burned us quickly and the risk of losing an important tool was higher every time it was off my person. Nonetheless, I would have to bathe every so often; I couldn't sleep in my armor every night, even if it was made lighter and better than what Gavin and Mathias seemed to wear, and it was much more flexible and far quieter than the half plate that Rithal and Kurn wore.
This was something I had not thought through entirely in the high excitement at Sarilis's Tower. Dealing with heat and Sun while travelling in the day, and maintaining some cleanliness while traveling with Human men who stared at me even fully clothed. It was not that my being watched while nude would cause me any distress, but rather that I had to keep things in perspective and weigh risk and benefit.
I remembered how I intended to interpret seeing a male showing more skin than a wizard's robes tended to reveal. It was invitation to flirt at least, if not touch. It could be the same here. Until I saw a Human female and how these interacted with her, however, I wouldn't know for sure. I might learn using my own body...but it was skewed because I wasn't Human.
Never mind the skin, though, there was also what they might wish to take from my belt or pouches or pack if I should remove them in negligence.
My one advantage seemed to be the window of time between my reverie and their sleep. I simply had more time in a day to use, and I would have to use it for foraging and bathing every chance I got.
Smiling with a bit of a plan in mind, I rode with Gavin, the Sun lowering in the Sky on our right side.
"Who will take first watch?" Kurn asked.
We all looked at each other in the evening shade of the trees and he scowled.
"There are six of us, there will be six watches."
"Six," Mathias spoke up quickly.
"First," Castis volunteered.
"I'll take second. Rithal, do fifth," Kurn said and the dwarf raised a hairy, red eyebrow but nodded. The Hellhound looked at me and Gavin. "You two can decide between yourselves third and fourth."
"Fourth," I said.
Kurn gave me a suspicious look.
"Mathias can make the fire and boil the water then," Gavin grumbled as he unstrapped the bedroll from the front of his saddle.
The bounty hunter shrugged. "Certainly. I've done it plenty before."
"I assume we follow one of the Moons to judge our watch?" I asked.
The Hellhound sneered a little. "Of course. Then wake the other. And do I need to say to make clear, that if any theft, poisoning, or other threat occurs, I will cull you myself from this group."
He was looking mostly at me and Gavin.
I smiled. "And this applies to yourself as well, Kurn, yes?"
He chuffed. "My mission is more to me than causing strife."
"Don't lie, Kurn, your mission *is* to cause strife."
The Hellhound turned on me in a much more threatening pose and Castis and Mathias both backed up a bit. Both the man's dark eyes and his teeth seemed to flash in the low light. "I had planned to perform this mission with just four. You and the apprentice are extra weight unless you prove your worth. One misstep and we will easily do without you."
I smiled. "Which conflicts with your threat of binding me as your demonic servant instead. You can't have both. Which do you want?"
For some reason, Kurn looked plainly surprised that I would say that in front of the others, and the air changed a bit. I wasn't quite sure why, yet. At that moment though, confirmed by glancing at Castis and Rithal especially, my speaking that threat aloud as part of a mundane conversation seemed to take a lot of its weight away.
Perhaps I was simply calling a bluff that he couldn't back up in front of his fellows. Seeing his own brief expression of resentment and uncertainty did much to further convince me that Kurn didn't know enough about the Drow or magic to be a real threat to me in that particular way, although he could always try to kill me with his physical strength. That was still a threat.
Kurn decided to change his tactic then; he stepped closer. Much closer. I could smell his stallion and the sweaty leather and the distinct, oily scent of male Human. He looked down at me, using his height to any advantage. I didn't back up; I sensed that would be the wrong thing to do right now.
"Since you bring it up, demoness, you do have one way to prove your worth more quickly than the apprentice." He smiled, and I detected a slight change in his scent that made me think of the type of aggression the Draegloth showed when they were released onto a female Drow. "You magic is stronger when you are properly mounted, yes? Isn't that what Sarilis said?"
I understood his meaning: useless except to breed or give pleasure. Turned around from what I was used to, and I was even expecting it, yet it still sounded strange to be told so after even two Necromancers and a "mountain dwarf" had understood the threat of what they saw. Either the disregard was intentional as an ironic understanding of my culture... or Kurn was simply prideful and self-deceiving. I wasn't sure I could give him credit for catching what Sarilis had been hinting about why, exactly, my kind would send a female to join the quest.
I chuckled now, keeping my focus on my periphery—on Kurn's hands, if his stance changed suddenly, if those around us moved—rather than staring directly at him. I alternated between looking at a small brown dot on his forehead and his nose with nostrils flared.
"I heard over-pitched flattery of my beauty, Kurn. Were you taking all he said exactly as spoken? Unadvised when your host is insane. What else might he have said that misled you, oh brave Lead?"
The small needle of doubt and the plainly ironic title worked to break the tension as Rithal and Gavin both made some sound of amusement, and I could use that to disengage from the confrontation without dignifying how I might be useful to the group.
For good measure, once I'd gotten enough distance from the big man, I added over my shoulder, "No theft, poison, or threat from me, Hellhound. Enjoy your night. I will return for my watch."
"Where are you going?" Kurn demanded.
"Drow things," I answered back. "See you at dawn. Come along, Gavin."
The apprentice had been seeing to his horse, removing most of the tackle and allowing her to graze. He glanced at me, considered his options, and decided to follow along. The others ultimately let us be.
Gavin caught up with me and walked a small distance until he noticed that I was foraging. To my satisfaction, he began doing the same and making suggestions, some I already knew and some I didn't.
"You two can't be in the same camp for long," he observed dryly.
"It will be a glorious trip," I answered with a smile.
After a pause, he said in his usual, flatter tone, "You are clearly a threat. I wager he needs to be convinced he has some control over you. That need will drive him mad and only escalate the longer you resist and do not give him some satisfaction."