The Northman - Jokul, she told herself - helped Oska to pack the boxes onto a small wooden cart. Irena watched as the pair of them dismantled the stall, folded the rugs and stored it all on top of the boxes. Jokul drew a small leather bag from his tunic and counted the contents. "Oska, mind the cart better than you minded the stall. I need to pay the merkfee on our goods. Pray they don't take too much of our profit."
Oska shook out the final, dustiest rug, sending grit and bits of straw over Irena. She blinked her stinging eyes and lunged forward. "You did that on purpose."
He pushed her away easily, flung the rug over the cart, and began to fix it to the sides. She tried again, "You should apologise."
He laughed, and continued working. Frustrated, she stared down at the ground, thinking of all the things she would do once she was back in the palace.
"That's her. That's the girl!"
Oska stopped working. Irena looked up. The guard had come back, but this time he had a woman with him. She was tall, and dressed in the city fashion, with her cloak pinned to one shoulder, covering the front of her dress as well as the back.
"That's the girl that stole from me.' The woman nodded at the guard. 'Just reached out and took it, cool as you please. I wasn't going to say, but..." she rubbed the fingers of one hand together in front of the guard's face. He handed her a coin, which she tied to the string around her neck with a satisfied look.
"I didn't..." Irena started to say, but her mouth went dry as she saw the guard reach for the knife at his belt.
She turned and ran. She pushed her way through the crowds of people, hearing angry voices raised behind her, but she didn't stop. She just kept pushing and moving forwards until the crowds thinned and she could run again. The angry voices were farther away now, but still she ran. She ran until the street widened, and the big bridge that lead out of the city was before her. Three guards manned the checkpoint to let people in and out of the city. A queue of people, carts and donkeys blocked the way, and it moved painfully slowly. She skidded to a halt.
The buildings on either side had lines of archways facing onto the street at ground level, providing shade and cool air for the open rooms beyond. Every so often there was a stall selling sweet spiced tea - the vendors competing with each other for customers by praising their own wares loudly, and decrying those of their neighbour's.
Plenty of children were in the queue - the smaller ones playing in the street during the long wait, the older ones carrying baskets, or minding a cart while their parents sipped tea. Some of them weaved in and out of the queue as if they were playing some game, following each other and laughing. The end girl stumbled into Irena, and clutched at her to steady herself.
"Oops. Sorry." She ran to catch up with the others, calling after them to wait. Irena watched as they clustered around a merchant trying to join the queue. He shifted his grasp, jostling the delicate cages full of birds. He tried to shoo the children away with his free hand, but they clamoured around him, demanding to see the birds. The birds, frightened by the noise, flapped against the woven sticks of the cages. One of the children whistled, and they all ran away, leaving a cage unfastened and the birds stretching their wings into the sky.
The people in the queue and under the arches pointed and stared at the birds flying away, as the birdman tried to stop the last few of his feathered wares from escaping. One of the guards from the bridge chased after the children. Irena began to walk back towards the city but was stopped by the sight of the guard from the market talking to people in the queue. A few of them nodded, and looked around as if they were searching for someone. She hid behind a cart filled with tall clay pots and scanned the street. Two guards still at the bridge, now standing with their spears crossed. One guard returning to his post unsuccessful at catching the children. The guard from the market walking towards the birdman. He'd have to pass Irena to get to him. She edged around the side of the cart, crouching down by the wheels as the guard went by.
"Hey, get away from there!" The owner of the cart appeared, shaking his fist. The guard looked around. Irena backed away from the cart and started running again. This time she turned off the main road, into an alley that smelt of fish, cluttered with barrels and stacks of shallow boxes. Wooden signs shaped like different types of fish swung above the doorways. She dodged the boxes as she ran, finding it easier to run on the sandy-coloured ground than it had been on the cobbles. The people in the doorways stopped talking as she ran by, but didn't call out to the guard, and one even seemed to be sympathetic, moving a barrel out of the way for her. She dropped down behind a stack of boxes to catch her breath, peering around the edge to see if the guard was still following.
An argument had started, and one of the barrels had tipped over, spilling a mess of salty water, fish-heads and small bones across the ground in front of the guard. He started to pick his way through it, putting a hand over his nose and mouth against the smell, but shook his head in disgust and turned back.
She sank back against the wall, and steadied her shaking legs. The smell from the fallen barrel was moving down the alley, and she wrinkled her nose as she got to her feet. She walked to where the alley merged into a small square with a well in the centre. The girl who had bumped into her was sitting on the wall around the well. She jumped off when she saw Irena.
"You're a good runner. Almost as good as me." She stepped forward and smiled at someone standing behind Irena, who felt a hand slip into her pocket. She tried to spin around but the girl was holding her wrists, "Hold still! Arkel's just getting the dibs I put there earlier. There..." The girl let Irena go, and rushed past her to tussle with the boy.
"Get off, Gia...ugh!" Gia held her prize high and danced around the well. Arkel followed, trying to grab it back, but failing. He pushed her off, snatched up the money pouch and scrambled up the wall of the square, finding footholds easily with his bare feet. He sat on the low roof and swung his legs, throwing the pouch up and down.
Gia scowled up at him from the dust, then broke into sudden laughter. She looked over at Irena, "I meant it about the running."
"You're thieves!" said Irena.
"The very best..." said Arkel, flicking a coin from the pouch into her lap.