Ezmerelda sighed as she scanned the board. Unexpected events had sapped her savings and she was short on rent for the month. Usually only two jobs were necessary to cover her monthly expenses. Her next selection would be her fourth. The extra work was cutting into her practice time. A wizard's life was supposed to be spent in intense study and training, not traipsing around the countryside doing odd jobs to ensure a roof over her head. Ezmerelda gritted her teeth and suppressed the urge to punch something.
Her eyes slid over requests paired with commissions for removing curses, creating talismans, and killing monsters. One item on the board piqued her interest. Her hand closed on the right corner of the flyer as another hand closed on the left one. A quick tug did not free the piece of paper. Her eyes started at the callused hand with dirt under its fingernails, trailed up the long sleeved shirt, and settled on the face of Roman.
"Let go. I saw it first," she growled.
"Look, I need the money and this is the only job I think I can do. Can you pick another?"
"Go hug a shrub. This one is mine." Her voice unintentionally rose in volume. The clinking of glasses stopped and heads at nearby tables turned towards them. An island of silence formed in the noisy drinking hall. Roman's face scrunched up as he considered his next words.
"Aye. Aye. This hullabaloo is harshing my buzz," boomed the voice of Timander. The squat guild master held a large crockery mug in each hand. Both Ezmerelda and Roman jumped at the sound of his voice. Timander chewed his bottom lip idly causing his wide, lantern jaw to swing back and forth.
"Both of you go." Foam slopped over the lip of the mug as he gestured with it still in hand. "Split the commission. Since Roman is the junior guild member he'll get forty percent."
Ezmerelda did some quick mental math and decided her potential cut would still cover her needs.
"Yes, sir," the unlikely teammates replied in unison.
Ezmerelda muttered under her breath as she stuffed clothes into her pack. She disliked rookies. They talked too much, froze during fights, and their magic was rarely useful. Mostly they could perform tricks that were meant to dazzle slack-jawed onlookers. The month kept getting worse with each passing day.
Her patience nearly exhausted, she tapped her foot on the tile floor as she waited in the lobby. Men took forever to get ready. While her attention was fixed on the stairs, a shadow fell across her.
"You return alone far too often," Marylise hissed into her ear.
Ezmerelda craned her neck to stare at the heart-shaped face with its delicate nose and rosebud mouth. The dark blue eyes were devoid of warmth.
"I didn't want him to come along," Ezmerelda said as she struggled to keep her voice calm.
"Make sure he comes back in one piece or you will answer to me."
She shivered as Marylise walked away. Ezmerelda was five years her senior, yet the younger woman made her uneasy. Moments later Roman sauntered down the stairs. He was half a head shorter than her and always wore two-tone long sleeved shirts in earthy colors. His breath smelled faintly of mint as he offered a quick apology and settled a leather pack on his back.
"Can you afford a horse?" she asked.
Roman shook his head.
Ezmerelda sighed. "Me either. We've got a long walk ahead of us. Don't dawdle." She pulled the heavy guild hall door open and looked over her shoulder. Marylise had her arms crossed over her chest and her eyes were firmly fixed on Ezmerelda. She shivered as the door closed behind her.
The first day passed easily. Begrudgingly, Ezmerelda admitted that Roman was a pleasant traveling companion. He didn't try to fill silent moments with awkward conversation nor did he request rest breaks. With her long legs and considerable endurance, she had set an aggressive pace yet he maintained it without complaint. Before the sun set they found a clearing off the road and set up camp. Roman gathered firewood while she unpacked her bedding. After a brief supper both settled in for the night. A tugging of her hair roused her from sleep.
"Roman, I don't know what you're doing, but cut it out."
"Huh?" His voice was thick and groggy.
The tugging intensified.
"I'm serious, knock it off."
"What are you talking about? I'm trying to sleep," he replied.
Ezmerelda pulled an arm out of her bedding and reached towards her head.
"Stop," hissed Roman.
She cracked an eye and stared at him across the still smoldering fire. Both of his eyes were opened wide and filled with nervous excitement.
"It's a Sykora." His voice was heavy with awe. "I never thought I'd actually see one. They are perfectly benign unless they are startled. Just hold still and it should leave. It's probably just looking for nesting material."
"Nesting material? It's in my hair. Do something."
He shrugged. "It's an animal. I'm not good with those."
Something wet and rough caressed the side of her face. She sucked in her breath.
"No. No. No," Roman pleaded as he waved both hands downwards.
Ezmerelda screamed. Startled birds fled their nests while leaves on nearby trees shook. The Sykora hissed loudly. Long blades of grass sprung up, wove themselves together, and swallowed Roman.
"Close your eyes and hold your breath," he called from inside his green cocoon.
The tugging in her hair ceased while an odd tingling sensation spread across her. With her eyes and mouth squeezed shut she struggled to keep calm. Her heart hammered in her chest rattling her ribs with each beat. A seed of panic took root and sprouted as the seconds passed. Her lungs burned and ached for another breath. Every fiber of her body demanded she relent when she finally heard Roman declare them safe.
She gulped in air while he tossed two branches onto the campfire. As the new wood was consumed light spilled across the camp. She was ringed by broad-leafed ferns that had not been there when she had lain down. Her bedding disintegrated as she sat up. Small bits scattered in the soft breeze.
Ezmerelda noticed Roman's eyes fix on her chest before he jerked them away. She glanced down. Her shirt had gone the way of her bedding and her cargo pants were tatters that concealed nothing. The only clothing on her left unscathed were her slinky black bra and panty set.
"It was laundry day. My good ones were dirty," she said and blushed slightly at the lie. Contrary to her outward appearance, Ezmerelda had a soft spot for delicate undergarments. Punching a monster in the face while satin caressed her skin made her feel delightfully feminine. As best she could, she covered her body with her hands and bolted for her pack. As she scooped it up the leather crumbled away in her arms. Scraps of her spare clothes fell through her fingers and disappeared in the night air.
"I warned you not to scare it," Roman said. "A Sykora's breath attack is highly acidic."
She spun on the smaller man and planted her hands on her hips. "So, you had me wait it out?"
"That acid cloud would have chewed away several layers of my skin or at worst killed me but you're an enhancement wizard, so you're tougher than most. That's why, I had you hold your breath while I did all I could to disperse it."
His eyes flicked down and Ezmerelda became aware that she had stepped into the fire light and given him a fine view of her panties.
With her teeth grinding against one another, she stalked away, and attempted to calm down. She squirmed around on the ground trying to find an acceptable spot. Rocks and uneven ground conspired to make her chronically uncomfortable. After an hour of frustration she swallowed her pride.
"Roman, I'm cold."
A long sleeved shirt fluttered out of the darkness. She easily plucked it from the air, pulled it on, and stepped into the firelight. Roman moved to the side and lifted up a corner of his blankets. Ezmerelda slid in next to him
"You lay a hand on me and I'll break it," she growled.
Roman shrugged and rolled to put his back towards her. Firelight revealed a raised welt of scar tissue across his back. She traced it with a fingertip.
"What's this?" she asked.
"Keep your hands to yourself."
The soft light of dawn teased Ezmerelda from her sleep. She growled and tugged the blanket over her head. She was warm, comfortable, and wanted to savor it for as long as possible.
"Ez, it's time to get up."
Ezmerelda growled once again and reluctantly opened her eyes. Her head was resting on Roman's shoulder with her nose nestled in the crook of his neck. She felt his chest rise and fall underneath her right arm. In her sleep she had somehow draped a leg across his hips. The cloth of his trunks was soft against her inner thigh.
"Ez, my arm is asleep."
She bolted up and gathered the blanket around her waist. "Don't call me Ez," she said as her face heated.
Shortly after she stirred, Roman handed her dried meat held between two thick slices of cheese sandwiched by dark, crusty bread. While he stirred water into the ashes of the fire, she sifted through the remains of her belongings. A hair brush and a cake of soap were all that could be saved from the items that had been in her pack.
"My coins are gone," Ezmerelda called out as she combed through the grass by her ruined bedding.
"Huh. I think I've read that Sykoras are attracted to shiny objects. It probably made off with them. I don't have much but we'll have to make do."
She plucked a chunk of bread off the ground, sniffed it, and with a sigh cast it aside. Even her rations had been destroyed by that troublesome creature. Her mood improved when she found that her beloved boots had survived the ordeal. They were worse for wear but still functional.
With the fire pit covered and the camp broken Ezmerelda pondered the day ahead. Roman's shirt only came down to her waist. It wouldn't suffice for travel and after casting a critical eye at his hips she doubted his pants would fit her at all. She voiced her concern. Roman grunted and gestured towards the ground. A dress of woven grass and leaves rested next to his bag. After rolling his eyes at her request, he turned his back while she removed the shirt, draped it over his head, and slipped on the dress.
It was a bit snug across her chest and hips, but it provided adequate coverage to spare her any further embarrassment. Ezmerelda did frown at the two daisy flowers that adorned the bodice. No matter how many times she tugged at the dress, the flowers settled over her nipples. With a sigh of frustration she gave up.
"Why didn't you make me a shirt and pants?" she groused.
"I'm not a tailor," he said as he stuffed his returned shirt into his pack. "Come here, I've got one more idea."
She knelt on the ground next to him. During the morning he'd recovered the metal from her destroyed reinforced gloves. He set the two strips on the ground and gestured for her to hold her knuckles over them. Roman wiggled his fingers and grass rose like little, green marionette puppets and wrapped about her hands. Ezmerelda blinked in astonishment at her new gloves. She flexed and the weave of wide-bladed grasses moved with her comfortably.
"Why couldn't you do that with my dress?"
He rolled his eyes and started down the road. "By the way, don't get those wet."
As they traveled Ezmerelda got the distinct impression that Roman had become more comfortable with her. He casually pointed out items and animals of interest accompanied by a succinct explanation. From time to time he would stop to investigate a certain plant or tree but he never allowed himself to lag far behind. With the sun hanging low in the sky and both of them thoroughly covered in dust from the road, they decided to call it a day.
Ezmerelda snatched her soap and headed to the nearby river while Roman began to setup the camp. She floated in the water and enjoyed the coolness of the current sweeping over her. A clucking drew her attention to the bank. The heads of two stoats poked up from underneath her freshly washed delicates.
"Shoo! Get away from those!"
She swam hurriedly to the bank but by the time she arrived the weasels had disappeared into the underbrush with her clothes. Her heart pounded as she stumbled through the forest. Glimpses of movement and faint clucking egged her on. In hot pursuit of a bobbing, black tail she crashed through a large shrub and into a surprised Roman.
Firewood flew as she collided with her companion. He grunted as he hit the ground and grunted once more when she landed on top of him. Water dripped off the tip of her nose and onto his. Her wet hair ringed their faces as Roman gave her a questioning look.
"Weasels stole my clothes."
She squirmed about uncertain what to do next. Being on top of him was undesirable but at least it concealed her state of undress. A spot on her left hip felt sticky. It was her turn to offer her traveling partner a questioning look.
"I found raspberries," he said defensively.
Frantically she racked her brain to find a way to get out of her current position without Roman seeing her private bits. A notion popped into her head.
"Hold still," she said as she tugged on his shirt.
"What are you doing?"
Ezmerelda yanked the shirt free of Roman's pants.
"Look, I'll close my eyes, you can get off of me, and then I'll give you my shirt. I promise I won't look."
"I don't trust you. Just let me do this."
Ezmerelda held her body close to his as she pulled on the desired garment. To his credit, Roman did his best to lift his body as needed to allow his shirt to be removed. Freeing the sleeves from his arms required tugging and pulling to clear his shoulders and elbows making her conspicuously aware of her stiff nipples as they dragged across his bare chest. Little jolts of sensations rippled down her spine as her chest rubbed against his.
A hardness formed under her right thigh. When her eyes met Roman's he blushed. He opened his mouth twice as if to explain, but his face darkened by several shades before he turned his head and looked away.
Pulling the shirt over her still wet body required more gyrations on her part. Despite her growing embarrassment the friction on her nipples sparked a tingling warmth below her navel. To prevent displaying herself she when she stood up Ezmerelda shimmied down Roman's body to limit his field a vision. She couldn't stifle a gasp as rough material of Roman's pants rubbed between her legs.
Roman cleared his throat. He was breathing quickly and the skin of his upper chest was flushed.
"If we ever have to do this again, please let me give you my shirt," he said.
Frustrated and embarrassed at the results of her plan, Ezmerelda made a point to graze her knee against his groin as she stood up.
"Are you OK?" she asked in her sweetest voice.
Bent over with his hands on his knees Roman swallowed hard and nodded.
The borrowed shirt clung to her damp body as the two scoured the area. After a thorough search of the nearby undergrowth they were able to only recover her gloves.
"The thieves must be in an underground den," Roman said accompanied by a frustrated shake of his head. "Plants aren't very aware at their roots. Trees are but we are strangers, so they aren't talking. I'm sorry."
During the second fruitless search, dark clouds filled the sky. Roman worked with two nearby trees and wove their overlapping branches together. The impromptu roof kept their bedding dry as the storm rolled past. The pitter-patter of rain drops sang a lullaby that coaxed her into a deep sleep.
A tickling of her ear roused Ezmerelda. She found her back pressed up against Roman. During the night her shirt had crawled upwards. Roman's arm was draped over her and rested against the undersides of her breasts. What felt like a hard knot was pressed against her bottom. With a rush of embarrassment she realized she was pressing her hips backwards against Roman. Carefully, she tried to slip from his grasp without waking him so she could cover herself. Each time she moved Roman adjusted and held her tightly against him. With a groan of frustration she slammed her elbow into his ribs.
The blow caused his hand to slide upwards and cup her right breast. The callused palm rubbed over her nipple and caused her to gasp. A second elbow knocked the sleepiness from her teammate.
"Get up," she growled.
Roman jerked his arm away and without a word busied himself with the morning chores. As she retrieved her brush from Roman's pack she noticed brown pellets.
"What are these?" she asked as she held one between her fingers.
Roman sat with the morning sun shining on his face while he gulped water from his canteen.
"Seeds packed in nutrient rich soil. I have climbing vines, grasping vines, poison oak, and other utility plants."
She sifted through the numerous pellets. "How do you know which is which?"
He shrugged. "I just know."
After brushing her hair she donned her new dress. While not as snug as the previous one, a trail of yellow flowers on each side served to accentuate the curve of her hips. Blue flowers lined the hem and the square neckline which put a hint of cleavage on display. It was a touch shorter than Ezmerelda was comfortable with. Out of the corner of her eye she caught Roman grinning as she fiddled with her dress. She grew suspicious that the cut of her dress was his method of teasing her.
In the early afternoon they entered the village and found the home of their employer. The Sutters were an older, kind-looking couple. The wife offered a broad smile as she held the door open wide.
"Your guild told us you were coming, please come inside."
Ezmerelda fidgeted in her seat as she struggled to keep the hem of her dress at a respectable place on her thighs.
"Livestock has gone missing. Everyone has been impacted and we are all worried," said Mr. Sutter.
"Wolves or bears perhaps?" asked Roman.
Mr. Sutter shook his head. "We've not had that kind of trouble in generations."
"What made you decide to contact a guild for help?" asked Ezmerelda. Her face heated slightly as Mr. Sutter turned his attention towards her. So much bare leg on display made her feel self-conscious.
"The animals go missing. Any normal predator would feed after a kill. Every animal has been dragged away with only a minimal amount of blood left at the scene." He shook his head. "It's all very odd."
A young woman, introduced as the Sutter's daughter Clara, presented a plate of cheese and fruit.
"Well, we're here to put an end to this. I supposed these attacks happen at night?" Ezmerelda inquired.
The farmer nodded his head.
"OK. We'll get some rest and setup outside. We'll keep an eye out every night until we get to the bottom of this."
Roman nodded emphatically. "Yes, we'll get to the bottom of this."
"I have a room prepared for the both of you," Mrs. Sutter offered.
"Oh, we aren't together. I'll sleep in the cellar, if you have one?" The words spilled out of Roman in a rush before she had a chance to open her mouth.
"I've never met a wizard before. What type are you?" Clara asked. She blushed slightly while the toe of her right foot brushed back and forth across the wood floor.
"I'm a wizard flora," Roman said. He fished a seed from his pocket and held in an open palm. The seed sprouted and bloomed into a pale blue Forget-me-Not. With a slight bow he tucked the flower into Clara's hair.
"I'm an enhancement wizard," offered Ezmerelda. "I use my magic to bolster my strength, speed, and stamina. For your furniture's sake I'll skip the demonstration."
"Mr. Sutter chatted idly with Roman while Mrs. Sutter leaned next to Ezmerelda's ear.
"Dear, do you usually dress this way?"
She cringed and fidgeted with the hem of her dress. "We encountered some trouble on the way here."
"There is a nice dressmaker down the street. I'd be glad to show you."
Ezmerelda gave a relieved smile and nodded her acceptance of the idea. On the way to the door she paused, chewed her lower lip, and gave Roman a pleading look. Without stopping his conversation he retrieved his wallet and tossed it to her. Mrs. Sutter arched an eyebrow and Ezmerelda blushed furiously.
The bell above the door rang merrily as the pair entered the shop. Mrs. Sutter had spoken true. Dresses of all styles and colors lined the walls. The seamstress blinked in confusion at Ezmerelda's question.
"Miss, I don't carry those. If you'd like trousers there is a tailor down the street."
The warm hand of the tailor sliding up her inner thigh in an effort to obtain her inseam was all it took to convince her to quickly return to the dress shop. Two hours later the wizard and the wife departed. Ezmerelda grumbled under her breath. It was a good thing she'd be fighting in the dark. Any skirt that allowed enough freedom of movement to kick properly would result in her flashing her newly purchased underwear. She grumbled more when she considered that the only undergarments in her size were more risqué than she preferred.
After a delicious dinner with the Sutter family, Ezmerelda sat surrounded by tall grass in the field behind the farm house. Roman had walked the edge of the field talking to the plants. Originally the pampas grass that lined field had been about knee-high, as the young wizard passed it grew taller easily topping his head. With sweeping hand gestures and some muttered phrases Roman had created a small, comfortable clearing to be used as a hunting blind. Huddled together with a blanket draped over their shoulders they waited. She dearly wanted a small fire, but the chance of it being detected was just too great.
"Now it's just a matter of patience," she stated.
Roman nodded. "The plants should hide our scents and they will warn me if something draws near."
She fixed him with a sidelong glance and settled into a comfortable position. The notion of communicating with plants was daft. Every few hours she had to stretch to prevent her arms and legs from going numb. The only thing that moved were the clouds as they slowly crept across the sky.
By the second night she as was sure she knew every star by its twinkle and the sound of every local nocturnal bird. Ezmerelda found herself grateful for the soft grass of the blind and the thick, warm blankets. At mid-morning both wizards slunk back to farmhouse in search of their beds.
During supper Ezmerelda struggled to hide concern while she watched Clara make puppy-dog eyes at Roman over plates of Sheppard's pie. All light had left the sky when the teammates settled into the blind.
"I trust you won't besmirch our guild's name with your behavior?" she asked.
"What are you talking about?"
"Clara. If you lead her on or so much as touch her, you'll answer to me."
He grunted. "I'm thankful the cellar can be barred from the inside."
She arched an eyebrow and twirled a piece of grass around a finger.
"She has quick, aggressive hands and takes 'no' as an invitation. I swear her hands have been in my pockets more often than my own."
Ezmerelda frowned at him and cracked her knuckles.
Roman tossed up his hands. "Don't worry, if need be I'll sleep in a tree. I have no intention of betraying our host's trust."
She nodded and slowly examined their surroundings. "This is getting tiresome," she groused. "I need to punch something."
"Patience," he urged.
A gentle shake of her shoulder roused her. She lifted her head from Roman's lap and rubbed at her eyes.
"Something is moving at the east edge," he whispered.
Out of the tall grass stepped a beast. Long, coarse fur covered its body and moonlight glistened off of long fangs.
"Werewolf?" asked Roman.
"Whatever it is, I'm going to stop it."
Ezmerelda bolted from hiding and sprinted towards the monster. An object arced over her head and landed at her target's feet. Vines sprung up and wound themselves around the thick, shaggy legs. It growled in confusion and tugged at its bindings. Her flying tackle took it squarely in the chest and despite the vines bowled it over backwards.
She straddled its waist, swept her elbow above her shoulder, and drove it down into the creature's jaw. Three quick blows dazed it. She gripped its bottom jaw and with her other hand cupped the back of its head. Long, yellow claws racked at her neck but failed to find purchase. Ezmerelda twisted with all her might until she heard a sharp snap.
Roman ran up behind her puffing. "Yellow huh?"
Ezmerelda blushed furiously. She hopped to her feet and poked a finger into Roman's chest.
"Stop looking at my underwear."
"Shop showing them."
Ezmerelda squatted down and nudged at a shaggy foot with her index finger. The wizards stared on dumbfounded as hair receded, claws shrunk, and the muzzle shortened. Both blinked as they found themselves looking at the body of a man.
He appeared to be middle-aged with a smattering of gray hair at his temples. With symmetrical features, high cheekbones, and a cleft chin he would have been attractive if life still burned in the hazel eyes. His body was lean yet nicely muscled and firm underneath her touch. Ezmerelda's gaze drifted across his chest, down his stomach, and lingered below his waist. She felt her eyebrows climb upwards. The man had been attractive and gifted. The sound of Roman moving snapped her back to reality as her face burned with embarrassment.
"Well, looks like this was a quick one," she said as she wiped her hands against each other. Ezmerelda craned her neck and looked over her shoulder when she didn't receive a response.
Roman had turned to face the field and was counting under his breath.
"Ezy, how many yaks are there supposed to be?"
"Twenty. Don't call me Ezy. Why?"
"I see nineteen."
A perimeter search revealed a swath of trampled grass. Drag marks were visible in the soft earth.
"I thought the plants would warn you?"
Roman blushed slightly and looked away. "I was distracted."
Ezmerelda took the lead as the pair followed the track to a set of low hills. Underneath the boughs of a gnarled willow they found an entrance to a cave. Inside Roman caught her attention and pointed down. The stone floor had been worn smooth with use.