Chapter Five

~*If Towns Were Cheese*~

If towns were cheese, Almidar would have been an old, moldy cheddar. Everything from the planks of wood on the homes to the thatched roofs to the clothes on the people's backs were old and rotting. Blouses on old women revealed patches of wrinkled skin, the men's trousers had holes in the knees and suspicious stains everywhere else. Children played in the muddy streets with their big toes sticking out of worn shoes. The houses that sprung up haphazardly along what could vaguely be called streets all looked as if they would topple over in a strong wind.

From the cover of the trees, the motley group crouched behind branches to study the town, keeping the more unusual members of the crew well hidden. A huge dragon and a tiny gremlin, although very different in appearance, would both cause panic in the town.

"Are you sure this is a town?" Arvan scowled, looking over the array of houses with lopsided roofs and foggy windows. "It looks more like a trading post that's been abandoned."

"I can imagine the place was a trading post at one time, although a rather useless one out here, in the middle of nowhere." Gretz said arrogantly, sniffing loudly. "But you said you wanted to go to the nearest town, and here it is."

Faeron growled deep in his throat. I could have found you a dozen real towns not much farther than this place.

"Well you had disappeared for the day." Arvan glared, "Maybe if you had been around we would have gotten your help."

The dragon snorted at Arvan and turned around and stomped back into the woods. "Where are you going!" Arvan shouted after him.

Well I can't go in there. Faeron sneered, I'd be slain, or at least have arrows shot at me, and I don't feel like pulling arrows from between my scales. They're in pretty good shape right now, and those arrows chafe.

"Oh for the love of..." Arvan scowled and trailed off when he couldn't decide which God to swear by and waved the dragon away. "Fine, take off. We'll meet you beyond this wreck tomorrow."

Faeron made no reply as his shadow-darkened hide slid through the trees with surprising grace. For such a large beast he certainly did know how to remain unnoticed. A useful skill for any creature that was hunted and killed as soon as they were found.

"I'd be surprised if they even have an inn in this hole." Shanae frowned. "Where are we going to sleep?"

Arvan shrugged, "If there's no inn there's usually a farm wife somewhere willing to let a couple of weary travelers sleep by her fire, for a few chores or coin."

"Do you do this often?" Shanae wondered.

"Too often," Arvan said. "Without a real place to settle down, one tends to do a lot of traveling. You come to know the tricks after a while."

Shane grunted a response and pushed her way out of the trees. "In any case, it will be a good change from sleeping in the dirt. Well, Arvan, are you coming or not?"

Arvan rolled his eyes.

"I suppose we'll be seeing you tomorrow as well." Shanae said to Gretz.

"Yes," The gremlin answered, "I'm sure I'll find something to occupy myself while the two of you loiter around town." The tone of his voice, however, suggested that he already had something in mind. Shanae gave him a questioning look, but eventually decided that whatever the gremlin had to do, she certainly wasn't interested in it.

"Well, come on then, Arvan," Shane said, leading the way towards the lopsided little town, "It's past midday already. And please, watch your step."

"Just had to say something, didn't you?" Arvan growled, jogging a bit to catch up with her. He gave her a dark look as he came up to her side, but she just laughed and shrugged it off. Why did I bring her along, again? Arvan wondered. Faeron wanted her along, that was why. And the dragon almost always got what he wanted. "Jerk," Arvan muttered under his breath.

"There's no need for name-calling," Shanae remarked to him as they reached the edge of the town. There was no wall around it like most towns had, so the town's borders were vague at best, but the houses all started around the same area, and at some point the faded trail had become a narrow dirt road. There were young boys playing in a puddle nearby, and Shanae smiled at them.

To her surprise, however, the boys blinked back at her and then got up and ran. Shanae was startled, "What is their problem?"

"You probably made them nervous because you're dressed like a whore." Arvan commented offhandedly.

Shanae rounded on him and clawed his arm. "What did you say?" She growled.

"Hey! Watch it! That hurt." Arvan whined, ignoring her as he clutched his arm. Shanae sneered and stalked ahead of him. The few townspeople that were present reacted nearly the same way the boys had. The pair was met by fearful stares and slamming doors as they passed by.

"This is getting annoying," Shanae remarked. "What do you think is wrong with them?

"I'm not sure," Arvan replied. Well, it wouldn't be the first time he hadn't been welcomed with open arms in a new place. Shrugging off the strange behaviour of the villagers, Arvan continued to search for an inn for them to stay in.

The small town didn't really have much to choose from. There was exactly one inn, and it was crammed full with suspicious farmers and merchants that glared at the pair when they walked in the door. The innkeeper was a heavy man who scowled at them through one good eye until Arvan almost turned right around and left. Shanae had other ideas though. She hardly seemed to notice the innkeeper spitting when they walked in, or the way the conversation seemed to stop. A young boy, maybe fourteen or so, openly gaped at Shanae's wings. Arvan almost thought he was going to reach out and grab them the way he was staring. Well, probably these people hadn't seen very many Lashrinians before.

Arvan stepped carefully, trying to avoid especially soiled spots in the hay strewn over the floor. It looked like the rushes hadn't been changed in months and the smell! Arvan tried not to think about it. Shanae wrinkled her nose a little, but apparently she was determined to sleep somewhere softer than the ground, no matter how bad it smelled. She must have seen how the people were looking at her, but she kept her head high as she approached the innkeeper.

"We need rooms, separate ones, and a good meal as well."

The innkeeper scowled a little deeper. "Aye," he growled, reaching behind the bar for a ring of keys. "This way."

If Shanae was put off by the innkeeper's brusqueness, she didn't show it. She followed the man without a word and Arvan had no choice but to follow suit or else be left alone in the common room with half the town glaring at him. He knew some folk were suspicious of strangers, but this was a little ridiculous.

After the innkeeper had unlocked their rooms, Shanae announced that she was retiring early. It was barely past noon, but she slammed the door in his face before Arvan could protest. Now what the hell was he supposed to do? Wander around town and wonder which villager would put a knife in his back first? That didn't sound very appealing at all. But they needed to resupply, apparently Shanae had decided he could do that on his own. What was she going to do locked up in her room all day? Maybe it was better if he didn't ask. In any case, he was on his own now and he still had a lot of work left to do.

Leaving his things locked up in his room, Arvan set out to resupply in town. It would probably go faster without Shanae around anyway. Women always took so long to do anything, and shopping was the absolute worst. Arvan found a dry good store and was picking around the wares when he saw a group of townsfolk looking at him and whispering. It was unnerving enough to force Arvan to sneak out the back way and move on. He waited until the group had ducked their heads together to talk and he quietly slipped out a side door and dashed around the building.

He wasn't sure why their attention was making him so nervous, but Arvan knew enough to trust his instincts. Maybe they shouldn't have stopped there. Disturbed, but still in need of supplies, Arvan tried the next shop. The situation was the same. Customers and even the shop owners stared at him and whispered to each other. The man who was selling salted and dried meats studied his face so intensely that Arvan overpaid and took off without waiting for his change. He hurried down the street back towards the inn. He rounded a corned and nearly ran over a boy who was crouching in the dirt near the side of a building.

Arvan was about to cuss the boy out for tripping him up, but the boy took one look at him and his eyes went wide. He scrambled to his feet with a squeak and disappeared down the road. To say that Arvan was puzzled was probably a vast understatement. He stared after the boy for a long while before he noticed the poster lying in the mud near where the boy had been sitting. Curious, Arvan picked it up. It looked like a wanted poster. He turned it over to see the face and finally understood. His own face stared back him, complete with arrogant smile and attractively disheveled hair. The Half Moon Syndicate had posted a reward of 3000 crowns alive, or 1000 dead. It was enough for a poor farmer and his family to live off of in comfort for a year. Now the only surprising thing was that no one had jumped him yet.

Arvan quickly cast his eyes around. Before the streets looked almost empty, but now he could see knots of men standing around corners, boys ducking behind windows, all of them standing so as not to be noticed by the casual observer. "Tura help us," This moldy cheese town had just become a death trap. Stuffing the poster in his pocket, Arvan tried to speed-walk back to the inn, but before long his feet were taking him at a run.

The townsfolk had seen him looking at the poster. They knew he would run. They would act quickly now. He made it back to the inn in mere minutes and burst through the door, barely bothering to open it first. He had the attention of every patron there, but it was already too late for subtlety. He took the steps two at a time and pounded his fist on Shanae's door.

"What!" She screamed at him.

"We have to go, now."

She must have heard the anxiety in his tone, because she opened the door for him and quickly began gathering her things. Arvan visited his own room to pick up his bags, but they weren't there. "Twelve Hells!" Arvan growled. Of course they had been stolen. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now. All of his money had been on him, and the supplies he'd just bought, but he would have to do without extra socks for a while.

"What's going on?" Shanae asked as he bustled back into her room and started helping her throw things into her bag.

"Look at this," Arvan tossed the wanted poster at her.

Shanae glanced it over and gasped. "How did this happen?"

There was no time to explain. A commotion downstairs set them scattering. Shanae threw her bag over her shoulder and headed for the door, but Arvan blocked her way. She nearly knocked him him, but he pushed her back inside.

"What -"

"They're coming. There's no escape that way." Sure enough, they could hear the thudding of boots coming up the stairs. Angry and excited voices filled the hallway. The people were coming for their bounty. Shanae and Arvan pushed back into their room. They had only seconds to escape.

"The window," Arvan said, heading for it. He tried to open it, but it was stuck closed. He didn't have time to struggle with it. Without thinking of the consequences and slammed his foot through it, shattering the glass. Shards sprayed out across the floor, and Arvan felt the cold sting as a big piece sliced up his leg. Ignoring it, he knocked out the rest of the glass and motioned for Shanae to follow him. The Lashrinian woman looked sick to her stomach. Arvan had to grab her arm and pull her before she would move.

"Arvan, surely there is another way -" she protested, but Arvan didn't have time to listen to her complaints. A short jump down to the ground and they would be able to run. Shanae would be able to fly to safety, just as soon as Arvan managed to snap her out of whatever stupor she was in and push her out the window.

The villagers burst through the door at the very moment that Arvan had finally managed to stuff a shrieking and protesting Shanae out the window. He gave her a hard shove and she screamed as she tumbled out the window. Her wings flared, but just barely slowed her fall so that she didn't break her ankles. It wasn't a graceful landing, but she was safe, at least. "Fly!" Arvan yelled to her as he climbed out after her. In the room the villagers were advancing on him with spears and pitchforks and long knives. Down below two groups were closing in on Shanae. The group inside rushed him, and Arvan rolled out the window.

His landing was better than Shanae's but not by much. The woman inching slowly towards the inn, trying to put her back to a wall.

"Surrender and ye won't be hurt!" Someone called to them. Arvan very much doubted that. Even if they surrendered, the ensuing fight over how the bounty was split was sure to get violent. Arvan didn't want to be caught in the middle of that.

Arvan got to his feet and backed up against Shanae. "Go, fly," he whispered to her harshly.

"I can't leave you here!"

Arvan wondered if he should be flattered that she wanted to protect him. Well, maybe later. For now he couldn't have her around, bumbling his escape plan. "Go! Find Faeron! He can help. I'm worth more to them alive."

For a moment he thought he had convinced her. Shanae's face set into a look of hard determination and she nodded. She braced herself for a take off, flaring her wings wide.

"She's getting away!" Someone shouted. There was a thwush and then Shanae cried out in pain.

"Shanae!" Arvan wheeled around to see an arrow sticking out of Shanae's wing. She sank to the ground, grabbing at her shoulder as if she wanted to grab it but was afraid of touching it. Well, so much for the flying away to find the dragon plan. He would have to come up with a Plan B, and fast!

The bounty-hungry villagers were closing in on them, no doubt only hesitating because he was worth more to them alive. Shanae had no such protection, though, they would kill her if she got in the way. Arvan thought desperately. He would have to fight his way out, but there were so many! He scanned the alley for an escape route.

His eyes passed over the roof and he spotted a dark shadow crouched behind a chimney of the the building across from the inn. It look a little bit like... Gretz! The little gremlin waved at him and disappeared behind the chimney again. Arvan certainly hoped he had a plan, or at least a distraction. He had to stall them.

Arvan put his hand in the air and assumed a cocky stance. "Okay, I surrender."

Shanae, crouched on the ground behind him, glared suspiciously, but thankfully kept her mouth shut.

"Wise move, lad," The man who seemed to be in charge of the impromptu bounty hunters said. He shifted forward a bit, keeping his pitchfork held in front on him. When Arvan remained still, he gained a little confidence. He motioned for a few of his fellows to come with him and circled behind Arvan with some rope. "Tie the woman," he told his friends. Shanae didn't have the energy to struggle as the men bound her wrists, though she did hiss in pain when one of them jostled her wing. Arvan waited until they were tying him to act. As their leader was wrapped the rope around his wrists, then he spun out and kicked the man in the gut.

Gretz had perfect timing. When the man stumbled back, a pair of horses charged towards the bulk of the main group, causing them to scatter. It was all the distraction he needed. Disregarding her injury, Arvan grabbed Shanae by the arm and yanked her to her feet.

"Hey!" she protested, but Arvan wasn't listening. He practically dragged the Lashrinian woman back down the alley and towards the edge of town. A pair of farmers-turned-bounty-hunters tried to stop them, but Arvan put his shoulder down and charged them. One jumped out of the way, but the other took the full force of Arvan's charge and was knocked to the ground. Arvan stumbled but quickly regained his footing. He kept his grip firmly on Shane's arm as he led her down the street. He was surprised that she was able to keep up with her injury, but after her first initial protest she didn't say another word of complaint. Arvan risked a glance back at her and barely held back a curse. The wound in her wing must have been worse than he thought, because she was dripping a trail of blood behind them, and her face was deathly pale. They couldn't keep running forever. "FAERON!" The dragon was their only hope. He wasn't even sure if his friend was close enough to hear him, but he screamed his head off anyway. "Faeron! Faeron where are you?"

They reached the edge of town and dashed out into the grass. The villagers were coming after them, of course, and if they didn't give up soon he and Shanae would be doomed. Shanae wouldn't be able to keep up much longer. Already she seemed to be slowing.

Arvan yelped as an arrow went whizzing by his ear. Apparently they were close enough to shoot arrows at them with some accuracy. Arvan decided to make a sudden turn and barely avoided a second arrow. He ran in a zigzag pattern to try and dodge the arrows, but that meant the villagers would catch up to them that much faster. "Faeron! I could really use your help here, buddy!"

"Arvan," Shanae gasped, "I can't..."

She was cut off by an earth shaking roar that even caught Arvan off guard. A huge dark shadow passed over them. He could hear the villagers behind them stopping and shouting in fear. Faeron swooped low over the group, shooting a torrent of flame over their heads. The villagers screamed in terror and ducked, though how that was supposed to help them Arvan didn't know. Faeron circled around and swooped in again, roaring as loudly as Arvan had ever heard them.

Get out of here, now! Faeron growled at him as he passed over Arvan and Shanae again. Arvan wasn't about to waste this opportunity. He started off again, but a pull at his wrist stopped him. Shanae had collapsed to the ground, and no amount of pulling would get her back on her feet. She had lost too much blood. Arvan cursed; that was an unneeded complication. Not knowing what else to do, Arvan scooped up the Lashrinian woman, trying not to jostle her wing in the process. She was still incredibly light, but Arvan didn't waste time wondering about it. He started off running again, heading for the shelter of the trees.

The villagers of Almidar were soon left behind, chased back to the safety of their homes by Faeron. Well, relative safety. Their rickety wooden shacks certainly would not stand up to Faeron's fire, but once it was clear the villagers weren't going to be chasing them anymore, Faeron back off, circling back around the village and disappearing over the trees.

Arvan breathed a sigh of relief. At least for now they didn't have to worry about running for their lives, but the Half Moon Syndicate wouldn't give up so easily. If they had reached this remote town to post wanted ads for him, there were probably posters all over the countryside. It was possible that news of his bounty had even reached the capital. Well, if it hadn't yet then it would soon, and when it did bounty hunters would be out in force. He once again cursed the day he'd gotten on the wrong side of them. It was yet another unneeded complication to his life.

In his arms, Shanae groaned as he stumbled and jostled her a little, reminding him of his other problem. "Just hold on a few more minutes, Shanae. We'll fix up your wing good as new."

The Lashrinian woman's only response was to groan in pain. Arvan chewed his lip. Why had he agreed to bring her along? Another complication. He was really getting sick of those.