“No wonder you look so underfed and poorly rested. Alton, have you any food in your pack?”
She knew he did. Grudgingly, Alton dug around until he found the oiled skin that held his food supply. A secret magic gave it unlimited capacity. Anything that would fit through its mouth, stayed fresh until it was needed. The weight was negligible. He could carry an entire feast on his shoulder, and never tire.
Opening the pouch, he drew forth a bottle of stout, red wine. Velda uncorked it as he reached into the pouch again, pulling out three glasses and a bowl. He set them on the ground. Velda filled them, giving the bowl to the horse.
A feast of oatcakes (for the horse) and steaming meat pasties followed. Afterward, they enjoyed the crunchy sweetness of a chilled bread pudding with cream. Astrid ate as if she were starved. Velda watched her carefully, to make sure she didn’t overdo. When the meal was done, Alton loaded the remains in the pouch where they would renew and cleanse themselves for the next meal.
“Where did you get that amazing bag?” the girl asked, concealing a belch.
Alton smiled. “It was a gift from a very satisfied young woman. She was a user of magic. She gave it me after a week of love—”
Velda punched him in the chest. Choking on his words, he frowned at her.
“Enough of your tales of debauch. He stole it,” she told Astrid. “He might look and speak like a knight, but he’s got secrets that are better left undiscovered.”
“I didn’t steal this,” Alton protested. “It really was a gift. If it’s stolen, it won’t work. It’s just any old bag, then. Only the true owner can work its magic. And I paid a heavy price for it, my girl,” he directed at Astrid. “She’ll have you thinking I’m a thief and womanizer—”
“You’re that in spades,” Velda snapped. “Not a thief, so much, unless stealing a girl’s innocence ranks among the punishable laws of the land.”
“They were all willing,” Alton replied with a scowl.
The horse, Revanth, snorted, bobbing his head. He seemed to be laughing, agreeing with Alton.
Astrid frowned at him. “I suppose you think that’s great sport?” She sniffed, pouting. “I hoped you were different,” she said to Revanth.
“My lass,” Alton said quietly. “Man or stallion, I fear we’re all the same in some respects. Some behave a wee bit better than others, but we’re all wild and lusty at heart. Though I’m sure he’s a good man—when he’s a man—the chances are that he’s had his share of sport.”
“While I saved myself, waiting for you?” Astrid shoved the horse’s head away. “Don’t even try all that prettiness on me now,” she fussed. “Thank you, milord Alton, for opening my eyes.”
Alton sighed. “Lady Astrid, he’s just being a man. Find forgiveness in your heart, I beg you. I don’t want him stabbing me in my sleep, when he retakes his own form.”
Velda giggled. “It’s not the end of the world,” Velda assured Astrid. “Why, Alton has had many women, since we’ve known one another.”
“Are you married or engaged?”
Velda smirked. “Engaged, of sorts.”
“Though how we’re engaged is—”
Velda punched him again. “No one’s business.”
“Ouch, woman. Stop that.”
“Then quit being crude.” She turned to Astrid. “No, we’re not married, but we are lovers, when the mood strikes. Though I don’t mind his little dalliances, from time to time. I’m not his wife, so I have no real claim on his fidelity. And it’s the way of his people. I can no more put a stop to that, than he can the river’s running.”
“What are your people? Both of you?” Astrid asked innocently.
“I’m a Potamides, water naiad,” Velda replied. “And Alton is of the forest.”
Astrid turned her head, tilting one ear closer to her companions. “Of the forest?”
“I’m a Wood Sprite.”
“Really?” Astrid leaned forward, gazing at him intently. “I thought Wood Sprites were tiny, wee little girls, who flit through the trees, and scare easily.”
Alton frowned, his dark brows forming an angry V above his green eyes. “You’ve been reading the wrong books, little one. We’re no more tiny, wee girls than we are big, smelly horses.” He glared at Revanth with that remark. “I’m man sized, with a man’s same form. My skin’s not made of wood, and I don’t have sap in my veins. I bleed like you.”
“Though his blood is green,” Velda remarked with a sly grin. “And he hasn’t a hair on his body, except what you see on his head.”
“Do I tell your secrets, nymph? I do not!”
“I’m teasing. Though why he’d be ashamed of his smooth skin, I don’t know. I find it very appealing, myself.”
“I wouldn’t know about such things,” Astrid said, becoming uncomfortable. “Revanth became a horse before….”
“So, no horsing around?” Alton grinned, winking at Astrid.
“Be polite,” Velda said, threatening to hit him once more. “Your sense of humor is as lacking as your manners. She’s a fine bred lady.”
Revanth stepped forward, baring his teeth. Alton shied away, grinning.
“A jest, my horsey friend. All be it, tasteless, still a joke.”
“You haven’t told me what I can do for you,” Velda said, less than patiently.
“We were told, by the witch, that a woman, such as you, traveled around these parts, and you could help us. She didn’t explain how. She said, Find my sister with blue hair. She can break the spell. That was all. It was quite disturbing, really.”
© 2019 Dellani Oakes