For Bob Poore.
“Goats. Why does it always have to be goats?”
Seth groaned, staring at the tiny hovel before him. The beasts were roaming about the yard, ignoring the smashed gate that had probably kept in more reasonable creatures. As Seth squinted in the fading afternoon light, he realized that what he had taken for a shadow as he approached was actually a goat perched on the roof. He sniffed, trying to ignore the pungent smell of barnyard animal and unwashed peasant, then he sighed heavily, a full-on shoulders heaving movement, eyes closing as he prepared himself.
Anne would be inside. Of course she would be there. He could imagine her now, remembering that body with all of the curves in the right places, and he knew how she would look at him, her eyes both demanding and imploring, with just a hint of flirtation, enough to keep him hoping, practically drooling, though he knew she was just using him.
She had sent the damn signal after all, her magic calling him with the implacable melody that sometimes haunted his dreams, imploring him to come. As if he ever had a choice when it come to Anne. He was bound to her. She could call him out of the deepest sleep, across mountains and deserts, rousing him from the depths of a drunken stupor to heed her call.
Standing before the hovel with the assorted goats, he wondered again why he had ever agreed to this. If that smashed gate meant anything at all, it meant trouble, and Anne’s level of trouble was something he did not want to be involved in. Seth’s goal in life was to have just enough fun to avoid any serious backlash. Actually, he was always gone way before the wave of consequences washed in.
This time, though, he couldn’t get far enough away.
The agreement had seemed a great bargain. He had been stuck at the bottom of a rather steep crevice at the time, his hands raw and fingernails ragged from trying to scale the slick walls, the granite rock now slippery from damp and cold and his own blood. She had appeared at the top of that hole like an angel sent from the heavens.
And then she had asked him to agree to a favor. A small thing, really, she insisted, a trifle. Nothing now, oh no, just something in the future. When she needed him, she would call.
From the bottom of that pit that freezing day, it had seemed an easy bargain. Standing in front of the dilapidated hut now, goats milling about and the rain starting to seep into his bones, Seth wondered exactly what he had gotten himself into.
No hope for it though, Seth thought, then squared his shoulders. He could do this thing, this final thing, for her, and be done with it. Of course, he had said the exact same thing the last time he had seen her. And the time before that.
This time would be different. This time there were goats, and even he had some limits.
He walked through the yard quickly, not wanting the beasts to get close to him, but they ignored him, not moving away, but not getting any closer. He thought about knocking on the old wooden door, then decided against it. He pushed against it carefully, but the ancient hinges squealed loudly.
So much for secrecy, Seth thought, squinting to see in the dark interior. He strode boldly inside, danger be damned, everything inside him praying to all of the gods he could think of. He waited a second for the inevitable blow to fall as he crossed the threshold, but when no one jumped out at him and nothing hit him on the head, he merely shrugged and glanced around.
Anne was sitting on a chair in the center of the room, looking for all the world as though she were a queen on a throne. Well, a queen who happened to be tied to her throne at the moment, and the misery on her face was only surpassed by the huge sigh of annoyance she let out at the sight of him. Her mouth was covered in a gag, but Seth
was sure there was an entire torrent of words hiding behind that cloth. He wondered how long he could reasonably leave it on, while still purporting to rescue her. Anne had the worst tongue when she was angry.
Then again, he recalled, a slow smile crossing his face, her tongue wasn’t always so bad. There had been a moment there when he had found himself begging for her to continue, his body pining for just one more moment with her.
But that had been a long time ago. And he had sworn then that it was the last time. He was tired of her music, of her call, of her damned power over him.
She made a muffled noise through the gag, her face clearly showing her impatience.
“Oh, I’m sorry dear. I didn’t quite catch that. Come again?” Seth took a step towards her, but not any closer. Her magic was powerful. Even now he could feel her spell, the magic urging him to set her free, to help her, to do what she wanted. He was fairly sure she couldn’t use it with both her hands tied and her mouth gagged, but one thing he’d learned over the years was that all women had secrets, and he didn’t want to find out anything else about Anne.
She made another grunting sound, and Seth took a moment to stare at her in the dim light, using the sight as a distraction from the magic. She really was a mess. Her hair was a disaster, blonde curls sticking out around the gag in snarling tangles. Her face was puffy, her eyes red-rimmed, and Seth wondered for a moment if she had been crying. The idea struck him as so improbable that he stared at her face, trying to see if she had the silvery tracks of tears on her cheeks. Her cheeks were red, flushed with some strong emotion, but she didn’t make any more noises as he stared at her.
Realizing that she was doing something as he watched, gathering up some more of her magic or her feminine wiles or whatever the hell it was she did to him, Seth deliberately looked away, taking in the small room, the lack of furnishings.
“This is a step down for you, dear,” he commented. “Nothing at all like the places you normally stay.” He paused rubbing his face. “You seem to be in some kind of trouble here.” He sniffed, running a hand through his shaggy brown hair, turning again to face her. “I think you are in need of a rather large favor.”
Her eyes narrowed, and she mumbled something against the gag. Seth nodded at her. “In fact, I’d say that you owed me a favor after something like this.”
She closed her eyes, clearly trying to remain calm, and then opened them again with a glare that could have curdled milk. Seth felt the temperature in the room shift, and he snapped at her, “Don’t blame me. I’m only here to rescue you.”
She looked away from him, eyes resting on the ceiling, considering.
“At the very least,” he decided, “I would say we are even, sweets. Dead even.”
After a moment, she nodded.
“If I release you now,” he said, “you will never call on me again.”
She glared again, but could hardly argue. Finally, her shoulders sagged, and she nodded.
“Swear it,” he prompted. “Swear that I am free of your magic.”
Her face twisted, but then he heard her voice. He felt the magic release him immediately. The urge to help her, to set her free, was gone. Now she was just another woman, another woman he had already had, in fact, and she looked awful. He had the sudden urge to walk away, to leave her there to her own devices, but he knew how magic worked, and he knew that he had to keep his end of the bargain if he wanted her oath to bind her.
He stepped quickly behind the chair, swiftly slicing her bonds with his dagger. She came free with a curse, her hands immediately going to the gag, tossing the soppy material to the floor with disgust.
“Well,” she said, her voice laced with annoyance, “you certainly took your sweet time getting here.”
“I had to cross the mountains,” he said.
“I gave you a teleportation spell.”
“I had to stop for directions,” he tried.
“It should have brought you just outside the gate.”
Seth shrugged, stretching nonchalantly. “I had to…” he paused, then gave her a dark look, voice cold, “I think I had to wash my hair first,” he said, echoing her words from the other night, the first night when she had dismissed him like some casual fling.
Seth was a lot of things, but he was not some minion to be summoned and then dismissed like a common whore.
“Well,” Anne said, looking him over from head to toe, “I’m glad you did then. I’d hate to see what you look like when you haven’t cleaned up.”
Seth glanced down at the mud spattered across his pants, the dirt creased into his shirt. It had been a rough night in Severin, though the barmaid had made it worthwhile in the end. If only he had known that she had quite so many brothers before slipping off to the back room with her…
Well, such things did happen. He hadn’t had the chance to even glance at his reflection before Anne had summoned him, her spell conveniently snatching him away when things started looking really bleak. One of the brothers was the blacksmith, and he had started mumbling very unpleasant things about tongs and fire.
The barmaid was pretty, sure, but not worth that kind of trouble.
Anne stood up, hands deftly twisting her hair into one of those impossible woman knots on the back of her head.
“So, should I even ask what happened here?” Seth ventured, hating himself even as he asked, blaming the impulse on the dregs of the magic she had cast on him.
“No, you should not,” she said quickly.
“Well then,” he tried, weighing his words carefully lest some more idiocy spill out, “this should conclude our agreement.”
“Should it?” She let the question hang in the air, and Seth stared at her. Her expression was subtle, but Seth didn’t miss the hint of lust there, and desire stirred in him again. He had already taken a step towards her before he caught himself.
“It should,” Seth said sternly, heart pounding as he tried not to think of her smooth skin, her hands that knew exactly where to touch, and that mouth, oh that mouth. He coughed. “We are done here.” He paused, then added, “I came very far to rescue you.” He wondered where exactly he was, and how far away the nearest tavern was.
“So you did, dear heart,” she agreed, and a strange sensation flared in Seth’s chest at the endearment.
It was dashed a moment later when she continued, “And so of course you won’t mind coming a little bit farther.”
He stared at her, the heat he had felt chilling into something harder. “We are done, lady.” For the first time, he thought it was true.
“It’s not that far,” she wheedled, hands coming out to touch his arm, a long stroke of her skin against his. “I can make it worth your while.”
But something had shifted in Seth. He was free. And this time he meant to stay that way. “Anywhere with you is too far,” he said, pushing her arm away. There was a moment of shocked anger in her face, and then it was gone, and she was the untouchable stranger again.
“As you wish,” she told him, and with a magical bang that Seth felt in his bones, she disappeared. He stood there in the empty hut for a moment, relishing his freedom while knowing that it would only have taken one little favor to get back into her good graces, and perhaps, back into her bed.
He had just decided to brave the goats out front when he heard the voices approaching. He ducked under the window, glancing up to see the trio of men walking through the smashed gate, clearly back to collect their prey.
“That damned witch,” he muttered, then took his place behind the door, dagger in hand.