Friday, 4 April 2014

[Northspell 7] the princess discovers the market

Irena was woken by the rat-tat-tattering of wooden wheels over cobbles. She opened her eyes to see a line of brightly painted wagons and carts trundling past. Every part of her body ached, her head most of all, and the colours swam before her eyes. She leaned back against the wall and watched the carts go by, not really seeing them. People walked alongside the wagons, some carrying baskets, others with bundles of fabric balanced on their heads. The clothes they wore were like their wagons - a clash of colours and patterns. Children were everywhere - some dangling their legs off the backs of the carts, others running to catch up. They were noisy, calling out to each other in a strange dialect.

'Hey!'

Irena closed her eyes again. She wished she could close her ears too.

'Hey, you!'

Something landed in her lap and she knocked the back of her head against the wall in surprise. It was a bread roll with some kind of seeds on top. A boy in the last cart sat back, laughing, and bit into a roll of his own, his jaws moving up and down.

The top of the roll was too hard, so she bit from the underside, tearing away at the softer dough with her teeth until only the crusty, seed-studded top was left. She broke it into bits and ate the pieces slowly, letting them soften in her mouth before swallowing. When it was finished she looked up at the now quiet street. A few children crouched down to rake in the hollows between the cobbles, hunched over, protecting their finds: little beads or sometimes a carved wooden toggle. They were not like the children she had seen running by the wagons. Their clothing was plain, and they did not shout or laugh.

The door beside her was wrenched open, and the children scattered like the beads they had been collecting. A guard stuck his head out and looked up and down the street. He glanced down at Irena and raised his arm.

'Get moving.'

So he could see her. The boy had been able to see her too - and well enough to aim the roll he had thrown. She pushed herself unsteadily to her feet, swallowing down the fluttery feeling in her stomach with the last taste of the bread.

'You deaf? I said get moving.' 

She grasped at his arm. 'But I...'

He batted her away with as little effort as a horse flicking its tail. She tumbled backwards into the road.

'Gutter rats like you make the place look untidy, see?' He brushed imaginary dirt off his tunic with a dismissive hand and folded his arms impressively, waiting for her to leave.

Thief, Northwitch, gutter rat...she had been called so many different names since leaving her rooms. Irena Marie Imaldi tilted her chin upwards and turned away. There would be a different way in, and nicer guards who would see her for what she was. She looked down at her dirty feet in her even dirtier slippers, the bedraggled hem of her nightgown, and her crumpled coat. The silk on her left slipper had worn through and she could feel the cobbles through the hole.

Something small hit her back, then her legs. She whirled round, but the guard had shut the solid door again. A stone pinged off her cheek, making her skin smart with the pain. She rubbed at the spot where it hurt.

'Shove OFF, new girl.'

She held a hand up against the sun and looked for the owner of the voice. Children crouched in the shadows of the alley where they had hidden from the guard. A boy stood up, bunching his fists.

'You threw stones at me!' Irena raised her voice in indignation. He was only a little boy, after all, much smaller than she was.

He drew back his arm and threw another stone. This one hit her coat and slid off harmlessly, but another followed, and another. They advanced on her now, whooping as she raised her arms to protect her head, and giving chase as she stumbled away. Eventually there was a lull in the noise, and their stones fell short of the mark. She rounded on them, their arms linked across the width of the street like a barrier. The little boy stepped forward, more confident in his bare feet than she was in her worn slippers.

'This is our patch. Go find your own.'

***
She followed the cobbles as they cut a meandering path through the smaller streets and dirt-paved alleys, always hugging close to the high palace wall. The enclosing walls of the street were sometimes pierced by an open gate way, offering a glimpse of an inner courtyard festooned with clothing drying in the sun. Women leaned out of upper windows, chatting to other women at other windows just across the street, raising their voices above the clamour below. Hugging her coat around her body, Irena pushed her way through the crowds, feeling them push back against her and jostle her from side to side. Once, she came up against a man with a barrow, piled high with clay bricks. He pushed his way down the street, scattering those in his way. She jumped to the side and the barrow birled past, as she stood close against the brightly painted wall, gulping down air to catch her breath. The crowds rolled back into place and the street was full again.

This time the cobbles betrayed her, leading her away from the safety of the white-plastered palace wall. They led her through blocks of houses stacked like toy bricks one on top of the other, the street getting narrower as the houses grew higher, until they almost met at the top. Strings of washing spanned the narrow distance, although they hung limply in the shade, dripping onto the heads of passers-by.

The walls here were covered in flaking layers of paint, one colour overlapping the next. Crudely painted slogans scrawled over every surface: above doorways, and across the wooden shutters. They fought for space, overwhelming older slogans that were still faintly visible under the new paint.

The buildings on either side finally met overhead in a stone archway. The space underneath was packed with people, some sitting on old rugs or bits of matting, and some crouched on the bare cobbles. They stretched out their hands to those walking past, and Irena pulled away from their touch, her feet tripping on the uneven surface. She followed the general surge of the crowd and stumbled into a large open square, flooded with sunlight.

The square was filled with tables, laid out in straggly rows, and loaded with all manner of things, from bowls stacked three apiece to sacks full to brimming with smooth shelled nuts. Where there wasn't a table, stuff was simply spread on the ground instead, filling every available space that wasn't needed for the passage of people. Irena wandered in and out of the tables, unnoticed. She saw fragrant-scented, pale yellow apples laid out in trays, fluttering song birds caught in thin woven baskets, and bite-sized, fragile looking fruits the colour of a bruise. She remembered they tasted grainy, but sweet, and picked one up as she walked past. Juice ran down her chin as she bit into it, and she wiped it away with the heel of her hand.

The things on other tables were not familiar: wooden barrels with copper-coloured fish hanging over them, thick smoke slowly turning the flesh dark. Branches that blossomed into vibrant orange flowers with a warm, spicy smell, and tiny powder-blue berries that blushed purple when touched.

A boy slumped behind the table, eyes half-closed against the sun. Every so often he would sit upright, look around and sink back down again, stretching his mouth in a yawn. His breathing slowed. Irena edged closer, looking with envy at the soft blankets covering the crates he was sitting on. She wasn't used to standing all the time. He didn't wake as she sat down on the cool cobbles and rested against the blanket. She took the bowl of berries from the table and sat with it cradled in her lap. The skin of the berries slipped away under the pressure of her fingers, staining them pink. She licked them, but it wouldn't come off. The berries burst between her teeth, one by one, until the whole bowl was gone. She sat the bowl back on the table and shut her eyes.

The sweetness of the fruit and the heat of the sun made her sleepy, and the noise from the square faded away. She curled up under the table, shaded from the sun and out of the reach of passers-by.

THUMP. The table above her shuddered and she opened her eyes. Someone was shouting, and someone else was yelling, but she didn't listen. She was about to crawl out from underneath the table and away from it all when the words suddenly made sense in her head.

"...ate all those berries!"

The boy was trying to speak but the man had grasped him by the back of his shirt and it was like the words were being shaken out of him.

"But I didn't, I did not, I..."

"Don't deny it, Oska. I leave you in charge and you eat my best stock and take a nap. You'll get the thrashing you deserve, whether you're kin or no."

Irena hid under the table and listened as the yells turned into muffled sobs. She clenched her hands so hard that her nails left marks on her berry-stained hands.

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