We entered the market square with our horses dropped off at the first stables we could find for a general health check. The main markets were different to Faechman. Faechman’s inner markets were certainly an overcharge, with cloth and bread selling for triple their costing price. There were of course, the poor man’s shops- which in my opinion where exactly the same, if not better than the expensive counterpart-, but they (like the slums) lay hidden in the shadows of the towering city.
Because of this, the atmosphere was also jollier in the cobbled pathways and broken stalls. There were no stiff men and woman parading around with their full clothes and faces painted in awful colours that fashion was to blame for. Unlike Faechman, the main markets had no neat looking flower beds and glass doors. There was simplicity and it was the simplicity which made me want to blame Zephina less for making us visit.
“Zephina!” I said.
“Amara!” she repeated in a sarcastic voice. I shaked my head, “What do you want to say?”
She rolled her eyes but was quick to jump up and down at the sight of a man with a wooden box attached with a strap across his neck selling some sort of sweet pastries. “Three,” she said pointing towards the three fattest delicacies.
“Sorry,” said the man in a heavy accent I couldn’t distinguish.
“Three. One two three,” she said pointing at the three pastries once more. The man shook his head and smiled.
“Three coppers.” Zephina looked at me and gestured for my purse. I produced the coins and handed them to her open and impatient hand. When she took the pastries of the man, Elias returned from buying supplies from a cart across the road with a thick cloth bag.
“I would not like one, thank you,” said Elias gesturing to the three pastries in Zephinas hand.
“Who said one of these where for you. They are mine. Not yours. Mine,” snorted Zephina, though I did realise then that she was being serious. The food was hers, and it would be hers – regardless of the fact that the money was technically stolen from MY nephew. I didn’t mind, though. And as Elias looked down with a lost sheep’ expression once again, I hoped he didn’t mind either. Though then again, why should I care, if he cared or not because it was beyond the time for caring for him.
I may have loved him long ago. Some time far away. But essentially, I don’t remember loving him. And love is not something you can force like the sun and the tides of time. You can’t force love.
“Amara, you are staring at him,” whispered Zephina in my ear, mouth full of whatever she was eating now.
Blinking in embaressment, I turned to face the other way and tried to regain my ignoring demeanour towards him. Through the glass mirror someone was auctioning ahead of me, I saw him smile. No, it was not a smile. No-one smiled like that. It was a small smile, a smile that may have once been.
“You are staring at him again,” repeated Zephina again. I shaked my thoughts away. I would not think about him. No. It would only make me miserable.
“Hmmm.....” she said.
“When will we leave?” I asked, trying to change the subject. I very well knew when we planned to leave, the next day, after lunch in an inn we had found, but it was the first thought that came to head. Zephina raised her black eyebrows.
“Wait!” I said, tiptoeing to touch her face.
“Hmmmm....” she mumbled again with another bite in her mouth.
I gasped, “You have.. You have black eyebrows. Your hair is not black!”
Zephina crossed her arms, shoving the remainder of the baked goods into her small satched, not amused, “You only noticed this now?”
“Yes?” I questioned.
“You only noticed this now. We have known each other for the good part of half a year.”
“But.. but you always where a scarf over your face in disguise. Today, you are not.” I explained, this conversation had taken an unusual turn. From asking what time we were leaving to getting blamed at for not knowing the colour of Zephina’s eyebrows.
It was true. She always wore that black scarf over her face as if it were her underclothes (not clothes, I wouldn’t be surprised if she had left home without that). I guess it was necessary when she was a wanted woman for whatever atrocities she had committed over her years (of course, I could not blame her for them when I was at fault too). But now she was pardoned by the king himself. She didn’t need to hide.
Whenever she did remove the veil it was at night, when I couldn’t see her face with just the single candle light in the slums. Any time after before and inbetween that, I had simply just not bothered to notice.
“Zephina you can’t exactly blame me for not noticing,” I said, walking across the street and into the inn.
“Yes, of course I can.”
That night, I awoke with a start. Me and Zephina were sharing a room, me on the floor and her on the bed, and Elias in a smaller room next door. But Zephina was not snoring and as I yawned, I realised that her slim form was not sprawled across the sheets as usual.
I tripped over a nail in the floorboards as I grabbed the first clothes I could and ran out of the building in the matter of a minute. But before I could do equally the same out of the street, the sound of footsteps became apparent behind me. I twisted in the manner Zephina had taught me and held out the sword at the person’s throat. It was too dark to see who the silhouette was, so I resorted to asking.
“Who are you?”
I pulled down the sword. “Why are you here?” I asked in a more snarling manner than it had sounded in my head.
“For the same reason as you.” Said Elias, starting in the opposite direction to where I was planning to go, towards what I remembered as the city entrance.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“The graveyard. She will be in the graveyard.” He said in his usual calm manner, without a sign of frustration or worry on his face.
“How do you know that?” I replied, jogging up towards him.
“She seemed to care about the graveyard when we entered. Do you not remember? Did you not see?”
I shaked my head, slightly embarrassed that he had a clue where to look for her and I was just going to turn the city inside out. The run to the graveyard, was a quiet one, which I was thankful for. It occurred that we had not been alone with each other ever and I did not want that to change. He was something of my past.
But through all that, I was worried. Zephina didn’t leave her bed, never. She loved her sleep. Just like I was not a morning person, she was not a night person. Something must have happened. The sight of the first headstone made a sigh of relief escape from my mouth. Elias led into the storm of trees and stones with a similar looking sword to my own, apart from the ruby coloured stones on its hilt where mine were crystal blue.
We both didn’t need to use our swords, though, when we found Zephina right at the gate. I tried not to run up to her as I saw her clenched in a circle over a small slab of stone, softly sobbing. I was about to run up to her, to comfort her, but Elias grabbed my hand and whispered in a gentle voice in my ear, “Leave her be. She needs her time alone.”
Unfortunately he was right, and thankfully I understood that. We walked back to the inn in the same ear deafening silence we had arrived in. When Zephina slumped back into the bed, I pretended I was asleep, so not to worry her and not before long I could hear the sounds of her snoring.
As much as I wanted to ask her about the night in the morning, I knew not to. And it wasn’t just because Elias had told me to not remind her about it. It made my hands clench, when she woke as normal and happy as if nothing was wrong. I reached a breaking point, where I was confused, when she didn’t bat a single eyelid when we rode our horses past the graveyard that same afternood.
“Zephina.” I said, not knowing quite what to say.
“Amara,” she mocked in that same accent, from behind me. We had done a quick shift, Zephina to the front of my stallion and Elias on his own, “What do you want now my lonely girl.”
I caught the words on the tip of my tongue, only to lose them again. “Nothing.”
“Nothing? Lonley girl you have something,” she said, twisting to look at me.
“Zephina. Keep your eyes on the path,”I hissed, to which she rolled her eyes.
“The horses have minds. We will be fine, lonely girl.”
I nodded, anxious at the sight of the black stallion on its own way following an ever quiet Elias, which she noticed and returned to her original position with a ‘coward’ under her breath.
“Lonley girl?” I repeated after the gap of a substantial amount of time, “I am not a lonely girl. I am older than you. And I am definitely not lonely.”
I could see the devious smile on her face, even if I could not actually see. “Whatever puts you to bed at night...”
I was about to think of another equally snarky remark, but was rudely interrupted when Elias and his horse stopped ahead of us. Zephina led the horse by his side.
“What is wrong Elias?” she asked.
He sat at the saddle, looking further down than I had ever seen him, until when I was too about to ask whatever wrong, he shot was his pale face back up with a look of fear upon his face. “Eli..” repeated Zephina, waving a hand on his face but unlike I had ever seen before, he shot his hand up in an authoritative manner to silence her.
“There is someone here. We are nearing the magic lands and creatures bleed upon this dusty earth. You must move back. Move back!” he whispered in an unusually frantic voice. Zephina led the horse behind some bushes and we called for him to join us but then all hell let loose.
Behind Elias stood.. something. It rose into nothing but darkness. It cast no shadow, no light and no noise like a silent grave with a flowing rugged cloak. Elias drew his sword, looked at the creature and said in his gentle way, “I’ve not seen one of you for a while,” before smiling and plunging the weapon through its black black heart. I tried to speak when another of the ‘things’ came from behind but no words could come out. I was in a state of utter shock, unable to move or to even blink. I was useless.
Zephina shouted, “There is another one,” for me.
He rolled over the deathly grip of its black tendrils with such agility that must have taken years to perfect. But he had had years to perfect. A lifetime and some. So when he threw another blade produced from the crook in his boots, I tried not to look surprised.
“Woo,” hooted Zephina, as I made the effort to glare at her, “I like you.”
Elias turned a scarlet hue, and returned back upon the back of his horse. “It was nothing.”
“DWE..” we both spoke at the same time, resulting in a combination of sounds that had no meaning.
“You first,” said Zephina.
“Can I fight?” I asked. It sounded like a stupid question to be asking but it was valid. A queen needed to know how to defend herself. Maybe I did.
“Ximena taught me how to fight. She was the best of the best,” he replied. I tried not to act disappointed when he made it clear that I probably couldn’t fight if I had forgotten. Ximena could throw blades and defend her friend, not me.
Zephina questioned when she was happy I had finished, “Who where they?”