Rose of Mideel Chapter 19
The Last Fair of Autumn
By Chocobo Goddess
Bright flags snapped in the breeze, colored lights were strung between poles that had been erected around the green. People were in festive moods, wearing their best clothing, wrapped in shawls and coats in the crisp air. This was the last chance for an outdoor party until Spring.
Challam and Lerna had a booth of their own; apparently, Lernas homemade pickles and relishes were the favorites in town, so she sold them at every fair. Aerith tied Deicacos nearby and helped her sell the heavy glass jars. It had been a long time since shed felt needed or useful, until she had decided a few days ago to stay in this village. Her skills as a healer would fill a niche in the community well. Soon, she would hang a shingle out in front of her little cottage after shed had a chance to get settled.
Her presence certainly hadnt gone unnoticed. Lerna commented quietly to her husband that shed never sold so much relish to so many young men before. With a chuckle, she said, "One would think indeed that they had heard somewhere that the stuff made them grow strong muscles or would make the girls like them more. They havent left her a free moment all evening."
Challam smiled in return, then realized that Aerith was beginning to tire. "Child, let us take over for ye. Poor thing, havent had a chance to enjoy the fair."
"Are you certain?" she asked, tucking her hair behind her ears. "I feel like I owe you so much. I could have afforded the cottage rent as is, you didnt need to discount it so."
The farmer waved away her comments. "Go, go. We have seen fairs in plenty. This is yer first. Ye should enjoy it." To the eager young men who happened to hear him, he said, "And dont ye all be crowding the girl. Let her have some time. Yell get yer chance when the dancing begins."
The men grumbled good-naturedly, elbowing each other and calling their goodbyes to Aerith before heading off to one of the other booths. Aerith sighed in relief.
"Thank you, Challam. I didnt know how to tell them to leave me alone without hurting their feelings." She untied the apron from her waist and hung it on a nail. "I think I will go see what everyone else is selling."
Dry leaves crunched under her worn boots, the smell of smoke from cookfires wafted on the air. She wandered along the green, stopping at the decorated booths to sample pies and play games. The place shed grown up in Midgar had had nothing like this, but she felt at home here. Deicacos walked at her side like a huge, feathery dog, eyes alert and watching over her.
When he snorted and butted at her shoulder, she laughed at him, catching his head in her hands and stroking the glossy black feathers back. "What is it, silly bird?" she asked, stretching out the last word in the manner Challam had. She liked the way people spoke here, as if they had all the time in the world.
Deicacos snorted, glaring at something behind her. She turned to see a man approaching her, one who had bought several jars of pickles from her earlier that day. He seemed to be unnerved a bit by the chocobos reaction to his presence, but he smiled pleasantly at Aerith while keeping his distance.
"Is he safe?" He asked, raising an auburn brow and glancing at Deicacos. "He seems not to like strangers." He stood with his hands in the pockets of his homespun breeches, regarding her with hazel eyes from beneath a fall of wavy hair. The rest he wore tied in a queue at the back of his neck. He was handsome, a bit too square-jawed for Aeriths tastes, but she had no doubts he was popular with the local girls. Like every man here, it seemed, he wore his sleeves rolled back to expose his wiry forearms.
"Hes just protective. Arent you, Love?" She smoothed the ruffled feathers around the great birds eyes. Casting an apologetic glance at the man, she said, "Im so sorry, I know weve met, but I cant recall your name."
"It is no problem, Miss Aerith. Ye have had so many people to meet these past days. My name is Jared Oneail. I work in the weapons shop." He nodded toward another booth, where a whole arsenal was on display. Many of the men who had been trying to catch Aeriths eye earlier were now clustered around it, checking different swords and knives. "I figured the others were occupied, and ye were unaccompanied, so "
She smiled, a bit uncomfortably. He seemed nice, at least, but she really wasnt in the mood to have people start vying for her attention quite yet. "Ah. I see." Deicacos tossed his head, nearly pulling the reins from her hands. "Here, now, what has gotten into you?" She pulled him back down gently, then sighed. "Im sorry, Jared, I need to go settle him down. Something has set him off, I dont know what it could be."
"Perhaps so many people around him?" Jared offered, still keeping well away from the deadly beak and claws. "He seems nervous about something."
"Its strange. He was fine up until a moment ago. If youll excuse me?" She began to lead Deicacos away, but Jared caught at her arm. She stopped, startled, and looked from his hand to his face.
He pulled it away suddenly, looking embarrassed. "Miss Aerith, I do not mean to be so forward with ye. I merely wished to ask will ye be at the dancing tonight?"
Something made her want to say no; she would have really preferred to stay in tonight and read more of her book of poetry, curled up with a cup of tea. But then she thought about Challam and Lerna, and how much theyd hoped she would attend the fair and enjoy herself, and she knew she couldnt disappoint them. "II should be there, Jared, yes."
His face lit up. "And would ye then dance with me?"
She hesitated, then said slowly, "Perhaps I will. I do not feel much like celebrating, Im afraid. But I will try to. Is that all right?"
He seemed to study her with those speckled eyes. "Of course. Until tonight, then."
She could feel him watching her still as she walked away.
The sun set, and the trio crested a hill that looked down over the little town. Gally clapped her hands in delight at the twinkling lights. "Its a party! Its a party!"
"Sit still," grumbled Sephiroth, glancing up at her. He grasped her legs more firmly when she bounced around on his shoulders. "Or Ill let go."
"Aww, you wouldnt, Sephy." She chirped with the certainty of a child who knew she was right. "Sephy, Sephy, Sefffffffffeeeeeee "
Vincent pretended to be studying the town in an effort not to smile. He liked Gally immensely, if for no other reason than she was a perfect foil for Sephiroths ego. "Hush, Gally, we need to figure out what to do."
"k, Uncle Vinnie." She busied herself with rebraiding her steeds silver hair again.
The two men were suddenly all business. "There are a lot of people down there. Cant the Planet or Zack pinpoint her location? Is she even here?" Vincent asked, searching the crowd below.
Sephiroth's neon gaze swept over the dancing villagers as if they were unimportant. A small figure, clad in green, caught his eye. The Planet's whispered reassurance sent a shiver up his spine. "She's there. I knew it."
He realized that, once hed found her, he couldnt stop looking at her. She was too far away for him to make out her features, but hed dreamed about them every night for the past couple of months. He could practically feel her hair slipping through his fingers, could nearly hear her quiet steady breathing in his ear. His hands tightened momentarily on Gallys legs, and she squeaked. He came back to himself at her sound. "Im sorry. Did I hurt you?"
"Nuh-uh." She kicked her feet a little, thumping them on his chest. "You found her, you found her," she sang. "Can I pet her chocobo?"
"If you ask her, Im sure she will let you." He kept his eyes on Aerith as he spoke. "Come on, well go down. I dont see anyone near her, Gally. Are you SURE shes in danger?"
"Yes!" she continued to sing, then grew serious. A murmur at the back of his mind told him that she and Zack were conversing. "Were early. She met him, though."
"The one who is going to try to hurt her?"
"Yessssss. Hes gonna be in trouble, isnt he, Sephy?"
A smile that had little humor pulled at his lips. "Indeed."
Vincent stood, checking the Death Penalty even though he knew it was ready. "Then, shall we?" He started down the path to the village, but Sephiroth stopped him.
"What is it? Dont you want to get her?" Vincent wanted to get moving; there were other places hed rather be.
"I dont want her to see us. Not yet; not until he goes after her. I wont be accused of murdering someone before hes done anything wrong."
Vincent stared at him. "You wouldnt let him"
The silver-haired man snorted, lifting Gally down from his shoulders. "Of course not! But I want him to know just what hes done by offending her."
Gally skipped ahead past Vincent, laughing. "Party, party, partyyyyyyy!"
Vincent chuckled, understanding, and went to follow the enthusiastic little girl.
Aerith fanned herself with her hand, panting from yet another reel. Shed had no shortage of dancing partners all evening, the men of the village falling all over each other to cut in. Jared had claimed her hand several times, but now she needed a rest.
Once or twice she spotted Challam and Lerna spinning through the crowd, laughing. How nice it must be, she thought wistfully, to have someone to grow old beside. As her eyes followed the happy pair, something beyond them caught her attention. A tall figure in black, with long pale hair? She looked again, heart stopping, wondering, but there was nothing there. My imagination again, she chided herself. I should be careful or Ill be seeing him everywhere. But I could have sworn he was actually there...
"Ye look to be deep in thought, Miss Aerith." Jareds voice seemed to come from right beside her ear, and she jumped. "Ah, I did not mean to disturb ye."
She turned her head to see him sitting close to her on the fence, watching her as ever. "Jared," she said as a greeting, not really knowing what else to say. He was beginning to make her uncomfortable.
He looked concerned when she did not speak further. "Are ye well? Perhaps a drink from the stream would help?" He held out his hand. "Come, Ill walk ye there."
"Really, Im fine," she began, but the thought of the cool water did sound appealing. And shed be able to escape the crush for a few moments "All right then. Water would be nice."
Jared frowned when she hopped down from the rail without taking his hand, but quickly erased it from his expression. She was going with him, that was enough for now.
Gally hopped up and down at the edge of the town. "Can I go dance? Lookit! Thats Challam! Hi, Challam!" She waved at a kindly-faced older man and ran up to him as if she knew him. "Wheres Aerith?"
Challam seemed surprised at the sudden appearance of this exuberant child, but he had enough grandchildren to know how to deal with her. He crouched down before her, patting her on the head, and looked wonderingly into her eyes. "Child, ye look very like her. Are ye her daughter?"
"Nuh-uh," she shook her head. "She doesnt know me yet. She knows Sephy, though. And Uncle Vinnie."
The farmer looked up at the solemn pair of dangerous men. His eyes widened when he recognized Sephiroth, and he straightened. "Ye are the one she told us about, are ye not? And ye are who ye seem to be."
Sephiroth glanced away. "I am. And I am here to find her. Do you know where she is?"
Lerna came over to them, curious about the strange visitors. "Challam, who are ye speaking tooh! Ye are" she cut herself off at Sephiroths gesture for silence. Continuing in a near whisper, she caught his hand. "oh, Aerith will be so glad to find ye yet alive!"
"But where is she? I need to find her." He was growing impatient, his hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. "She was over there just a moment ago."
Picking up the insistent Gally, Lerna looked about. "I thought I saw her going to yon stream. Jared was with her; she should be fine. Oh, child, what is the matter?"
"Thats the man! Sephy, hes the one! You dont have time!" Gally had gone from bubbling and bouncy to frightened in seconds. "You gotta go help her!"
He shared a look with Vincent, who nodded and took off through the dancers. "Stay here with Challam. I will come back with Aerith. Calm down," he said, more gently, cupping her face, "She will not come to harm. Ill introduce you when we come back."
"k," she sniffled, "You really gotta go. Shes scared."
He disappeared into the crowd.
"Jared?" Aerith called after her escort, "Wait up for me. I can barely see where Im going." She narrowly missed tripping over a root. "Why does it feel like were going up the side of the hill? I thought the stream was lower, near the town."
"It is," he said, giving her a hand, "But the spring is farther up. Its a nice place to sit."
She stopped. "What? I just wanted a drink of water. Where ARE you taking me?"
"I told ye, to the spring. I wished to have a few minutes alone with ye." In the darkness, he was merely a light-colored blur with glittering black eyes. The moon hid behind clouds, and suddenly, for the first time, Aerith began to feel afraid. She pulled her hand from his.
"I want to go back," she said, "I can do without a drink."
He caught her wrist and pulled her roughly forward. "Ye have come so far, and the spring is just ahead, Miss Aerith. And I wish to speak with ye alone."
She yelped, struggling against his grip. "Let go of me! Jared, please!" Stupid, stupid girl, she berated herself, walking blithely through the woods with a stranger! "Let GO!" She wrenched away from him, stumbling back a few steps. They looked at each other, neither one expecting her to get free. She bolted.
He growled in frustration, then took off after her through the trees.
Not a sound they made, running side by side over the leaves. The Planet urged them on, lending encouragement and worry to the swordsman, whose mood was picked up clearly by his companion. It was the thrill of the hunt, mixed with the fury of nature and a fierce protectiveness that Sephiroth had never felt before. They ran as if the trees didnt exist, as if fallen stone walls didnt cross their paths. Vincent kept half a step behind, knowing that Sephiroth would want to reach her first.
Then they heard a crashing, and a feminine voice swearing, and an angry male voice. Vincent fell back further, instinctively knowing to keep his presence hidden until the boy tried to escape, and then
Sephiroth knew what he planned and trusted him as he would one of his own men. He put on an extra burst of speed, knowing that even that slight noise would go unnoticed by his quarry. The anticipation of what he would do to the man who threatened Aerith was almost palpable. He looked forward to punishing the man, he realized, almost as much as he did having her near him again.
Almost, but not quite.
He reached the clearing hed somehow known would be there, skirted the edge, and then turned to wait.
"Leave me alone!" Aerith cried, ducking around the trees that seemed to part for her. She felt her ankle twist in a small hollow and gritted her teeth against the pain. A light oath escaped past her lips. Jared laughed harshly behind her, too close.
"Come back here, girl. Ye arent being social, now," he taunted. Tiny branches whipped into his face and scored his arms. He had never been turned down before, the nerve of the wench to do so! He tore after her, anger building at his frustration.
Aerith knew that to stop would spell her doom. Her legs protested, her ankle and wrist throbbing, but still she forced her body to obey out of fear and despair. She stumbled into a small clearing as the moon suddenly came out from behind the clouds. So busy watching over her shoulder was she that she failed to notice the man in her way. When black-gloved fingers encircled her arms and crushed her in an almost savage hug, she tried to struggle.
Then a deep, familiar voice was murmuring in her ear, a heart she knew well beat under her hands, and a man she thought dead mesmerized her with his glowing eyes.
Then Jared burst into the clearing, and the cool green of the Generals gaze turned the burning, roiling color of raw Mako. Once more making sure she was secure in his arms, Sephiroth let the full effect of his presence settle over the villager.
Instinctively, Jared stopped and turned to go, only to find his way blocked by a nightmare of red and black. To the young man, it must have seemed as if the very forest had conjured up two warriors out of moonlight and air. One was made of shadows and ice, the other of blood and fire.
Jared Oneail fell to his knees in utter fear.
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