Chapter 9.1

The group walked as fast as they could, but when the sun set they had to stop and rest.  Hans sorted out something for the group to eat and when they were done, everyone climbed into their bedrolls and went to sleep.  All except for Rowena.  She was feeling restless and still a little shaken after what had happened in the inn.

She crawled out from under her blanket and wandered a little way off before sitting down.  She craned her neck backwards to look up at the stars.  She’d never seen them like this before, so clear and bright, not even from the window of her room at the palace.  The air was cool and refreshing on her face and she breathed in the clean smell of the countryside.

‘You’ll get a cramp in your neck if you do that.’  She turned around look at Artem standing a few feet behind her.

‘You didn’t think I had disappeared did you?’

‘No.  But I wanted to check you were alright.  After what happened at the inn-‘

‘Did you steal the necklace?’  She interrupted.  ‘And I don’t care what the answer is, I just what the truth.’  Artem came and sat next to her on the ground, arms stretched out behind him to support him.

‘I didn’t.’

‘Then where did you get it from then?’

‘It belonged to my mother,’ Artem lied smoothly.  He didn’t know why he was lying about the origins of the necklace, one of the finer pieces from the stolen box, but Artem’s sudden need for Rowena’s approval made him tell the lie.

‘Then why didn’t you tell Oska where it came from?’

‘I thought it would make you feel guilty, for taking something like that from me.’

‘Then why did you offer it?’

‘Because I wanted to show you that I was sorry.’

‘You didn’t have to give me something so precious in order to earn my forgiveness.  It wasn’t all your fault.’  She removed the necklace from her neck and held it out to Artem.  ‘Take it back.  I would feel bad keeping it.’

‘What else am I going to do with it?’  Rowena didn’t have an answer to this and blushed.  ‘Keep it, my mother would want you to have it.’

'I’m not sure.’

‘I am.  My mother would love you.’  Artem’s compliments made Rowena feel warm inside, instead of awkward, as she would have expected.

‘You never talk about your mother.  What is she like?’

‘She was the best person I’ve ever known.’  Artem said lying down on the floor.  ‘Very beautiful, she looked a bit like you.  The same blonde hair and beautiful blue eyes.’

‘No really what is she like?’  Rowena said lying down next to him.

‘She was from Fersere.  Her maiden name was Louise Sweet, before she married my father of course.’

‘Your parents were married?’

‘No need to sound so surprised,’ Artem laughed.  ‘I actually come from quite a respectable background.  My parents were married; my father had his own carpentry business in a small village in Madrimar.  My mother was well respected and liked by everyone, even when we were at war against her home country.’

‘So what happened?’  Rowena asked delicately.  ‘How did you end up here?’

‘Who says something happened.’  Artem craned his neck to the side to look at Rowena lying next to him.  ‘Not everything has to happen because of something else.’

‘But?’

‘But you’re right.  There was a war, I was so young I didn’t even know who we were fighting, all I knew was that my father had to go off and fight.  I can even remember the day he left.  It was the hottest day that summer, I remember because the sleeves on my mother’s dress were rolled up above her elbows and her cheeks were flushed.  It’s funny the things you remember.  She was trying so hard to be strong, probably for my father’s sake as much as for mine, but I could tell something wasn’t right.  She wouldn’t let go of his hand when he had to go, she just kept holding on.  My father pulled her towards him and whispered something in her ear.  To this day I don’t know what it was he said.’  Rowena could see a faraway look in Artem’s eyes as he gazed up at the night sky, a small, beautiful smile pulling at the corners of his mouth as he remembered.  But then his tone changed and the smile disappeared.  ‘But to cut a long story short, my father left that day and he never came back.’

‘I’m so sorry Artem.  I had no idea that had happened.’

'It’s not your fault Ena.  Men die in wars all the time, it’s what happens.’

‘How was your mother?’

‘She was all right for a while.  That’s what she was like, always trying to keep soldiering on, never wanting to look back on the past.  But one day a few years later the past caught up with her.  She sank into depression and finally killed herself.’

‘How old were you?’

‘By then I was about ten.’

‘How did you survive?  To be alone in the world at the age of ten must have been terrible.’

‘Actually it wasn’t that bad now I look back on it.  It wasn’t the highest point of my life but that’s when things started to change for me.  I began to learn my trade.  At the time it was just a way to survive from one day to the next, but I got good at it.  I made friends and we worked together.  They became my first band of thieves.’

‘And they’re still with you after all these years.’

‘Not all of the men with us today were in my original group.  Quite a few of them left to start their own business, as we like to call it.  Ishak is the man who has stayed with me the longest.’

‘I didn’t think thieves could be so loyal.’

‘What are you suggesting?’  Artem said, clearly making fun of the situation, having learnt from his past mistakes and not wanting to have another argument with Ena.

‘I don’t mean that you can’t trust thieves it’s just that loyal isn’t a word I would use to describe them in the first place,’ Rowena said laughing for no reason and it didn’t take long for Artem to join in, and soon they were both in hysterics, neither sure what they had started laughing about in the first place.

‘Do you trust me?’ Artem asked when they’d both calmed down.  ‘You said you don’t think thieves can be trusted, so do you think you can trust me.’

The End

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