Layla heaved a sigh of relief when they exited the blacksmith's forge. The heated darkness reminded her too much of the black caverns she had escaped from. An image flashed across her mind and she paused, putting an arm out to steady herself as a pain memory flashed across her back, bringing bile to her throat. Zane stopped his friendly chatter when he realised she was no longer shadowing him, and turned to her in concern.
"Are you alright?"
She nodded weakly in reply, and pressed her head to the cold rock wall. The memory faded and she swallowed, trying to rid herself of the vile taste in her mouth. Her stomach growled at her.
"Sorry." She muttered, and turned back to Zane. "Is there any way I could eat now? I- I haven't eaten for a long time."
Zane watched her intently for a moment, then nodded.
"Sure. We can just finish up this part and head to the dining hall."
Layla nodded in thanks and followed him as he swivelled and continued to give his tour once more. It was interesting, and equally inspiring to see these people, Layla thought, as they bustled around, busy in their lives. They might be working just as hard as she had been all her life, but they were happy. Women kissed their men, children ran laughing with each other, toy swords in their hands. But along with this, there was a tinge of deep sadness. Loss, pain and worry was deeply lined in to each face. Grim brows hovered over steely eyes, and everyone had a weapon. Even some of the older children carried daggers.
Layla felt a pang of sorrow at this last sight. Children should not be carrying weapons. Children should not have the weight of the world thrust upon them. She should know. She'd been carrying that weight since she was five, and she was tired. So tired. And hungry.
There was a delicious smell rising in front of her. The torch lit tunnel Zane was leading her down opened up in to a large cavern, that stretched high enough that it must take up most of the mountain it belonged to, and far enough so that it fit the several long wooden tables that filled it. These were quickly piling up with people, all carrying wooden bowls and plates from which the aroma rose. Saliva rose in Layla's mouth as she sniffed.
Zane led her to a line of women and men who were dealing out the food, lumps of hot meat in to bowls and what looked like bread on to plates. Layla accepted the bread with thanks and stared at it in wonder. It was not cold or hard or grey. It was warm, soft and a welcoming sandy colour. Zane chuckled at her.
"It's just bread. You never had bread?"
"Not... not like this." The next person in line passed her a bowl of the hot meaty stuff and she sniffed it, shivers of pleasure running down her spine at the rumblings that stirred in her belly. "What is this?"
Zane gaped at her.
"Stew. You've never had stew?"
"Stew." Layla rolled the sound around in her mouth. It felt strange. "What's it made of?"
"Animal meat, gravy... you know what gravy is?"Layla shook her head. "It's the liquidy bit made of... well I don't know. I'm not a cook; you'd have to ask them." He gestured at the line of men and women still dealing food behind them. "But it's good. Come and sit, then you can eat."
He led her to one of the many tables and pulled a large mug from the corner of the table, putting it in front of her.
"Ale. It'll warm you with the stew. Dig in." Layla tore off some of the bread and placed it in her mouth. The taste sprang at her tastebuds and her eyes widened. She thought she had never tasted anything this good. Zane watched in mild amusement as she revelled in the taste, then tried the stew and the ale, her eyes getting as wide as saucers in the process.
"You look like you needed that." A voice muttered over Layla's shoulder, and she turned round to find the man she had met in the tunnels in front of her. Jasper Silver. The man with the haunted eyes.
She nodded and watched him as he sat, his own bowl and plate in front of him.
"Has he seen her yet?" Jasper asked Zane.
"No. That's the next stop on the tour."
"This isn't some fun activity Zane. This is your punishment."
"Yeah I know. But it's not so bad. You're not so bad." He smiled at Layla, as friendly as he could be while trying not to glare at Jasper.