They drove all day in silence, apart from the occasional grumble from Fialka. She wasn’t a young woman. On closer inspection, Rowena could see her hair was starting to go grey in streaks, and there were wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. But her green eyes were still bright and youthful, which made her appear like she had grown old before her time.
When they reached a wayside inn just before dark, Fialka pulled the cart into the stables and began to take the harness off her horse.
'I’ll assume you will be wanting to travel with me again tomorrow,’ Fialka said in her gruff voice. Rowena nodded. ‘Well you’ll have to fend for yourself for tonight, I don’t think I can stretch that far.’ She looked at Rowena. ‘You do have money don’t you?’ Rowena looked at the floor and shook her head. ‘Oh Gods,’ Fialka mumbled. ‘Why did I have to pick you up in the first place? Come on then, you can share a room with me tonight.’
Rowena followed Fialka gratefully inside, trying to keep her head down as people looked up at them as they entered. As Fialka sorted out a room for the evening with the innkeeper, Rowena looked around the room. It wasn’t as crowded as the one in Amea had been, but there was still a roaring fire making the room feel like an oven. She soon looked away from the open space when she became aware that everyone was looking at her with great interest. She was clearly quite a curiosity in her trousers and shirt.
Thankfully, Fialka had been allocated a room and Rowena followed her hurriedly upstairs, eager to be away from the watching eyes. She felt much better as soon as the door was closed behind her and it was only her and Fialka present. The room was far smaller than the one she had shared with Artem, but there was a bed, a fire and an armchair.
‘I’m taking the bed,’ Fialka said. ‘That’s one thing I’m not giving up.’
‘Of course,’ Rowena replied hurriedly, ‘I’ll sleep in the chair.’ She moved over towards the chair and began to sit down when Fialka stopped her.
‘Oh no you don’t. I’m not having you leaving stains on the furniture. That’ll cost me even more money.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Rowena mumbled.
‘Will you stop saying that,’ Fialka said irritably. ‘All we need to do is wash your clothes.’
‘You mean?’ Rowena indicated that she would have to take her clothes off.
‘Of course. How else are we meant to wash them?’
Blushing beyond belief, Rowena pulled off her shirt and trousers so she was standing in only her undergarments. Fialka snatched the clothes up from the floor and headed towards the door.
‘Wrap yourself up in a blanket while I send these to be washed and sort out a bath to be drawn. You look like you need a good clean.’
‘Thank you Fialka,’ Rowena said as earnestly as she could. ‘It means so much to me that you are being kind.’
‘I wouldn’t thank me just yet,’ she warned. ‘I never help anyone without expecting something in return.’ She left the room, the door shutting behind her. Rowena pulled the blanket off the bed, wrapping it around her and sitting on the floor by the fire. I never help anyone without expecting something in return. The words echoed around her head. What was Fialka expecting from her? She had no money, no belongings, nothing of any value that she could sell. Then she remembered the locket Artem had given her, which was still hanging around her neck. She held the heart in the palm of her hand, feeling the weight of the silver once more. She couldn’t give this to Fialka. It was the only thing she had left that reminded her of Artem, the only thing he had given her, and she wasn’t ready to give it up.
When she heard the door open again she hid the necklace, putting the pendant inside her corset and pulling her hair forward so it would hide the silver chain. But it wasn’t Fialka, only a maid coming in with a tin bath, ready to be filled with water. Rowena watched as the maid came in and out of the room with buckets of boiling water, which she tipped one after the other into the bath. When the bath was half full, the maid said Rowena could get in, and left closing the door behind her.
There was no screen in the room so Rowena undressed quickly and jumped into the water, burning her skin. She began to get used to the temperature and began to wash the mud out of her hair and off her body. She leant back, enjoying the first hot bath she’d had since she’d left Amea. When she finally began to relax, the door opened again and Fialka entered.
‘Enjoying my bath I see,’ she commented as she looked at Rowena.
‘Oh I’m so sorry. The maid said- and I thought-‘
‘Stop blathering on. The bath was for you, I just wanted to see the look on your face.’ A wry smile appeared on the woman’s face and Rowena breathed out. ‘They’ve taken your clothes to be washed and you should have them back by the morning.’
‘Thank you,’ Rowena said. ‘I’m not sure how I will ever pay you back.’
‘I have an idea. When we reach Peria it should be market day. You can pay me back by helping me on my stall for the day. What do you say?’
‘That would be perfect. How long until we reach Peria?’
‘We should have arrived by tomorrow evening, if it pleases the Gods.’ Rowena noted the use of the word Gods in Fialka’s speech.
‘Are you a believer of the Old Faith?’
‘Do you have a problem with that?’ Fialka asked, the gruffness returning to her voice.
‘No not at all. It’s just I have never met anyone who was a member of the Old Faith.’
‘You really should get out more,’ Fialka said, the sternness leaving her voice. ‘There are more believers of the Old Faith than you would think.’
‘Even with the laws against them?’
‘Yes. People don’t just give up their beliefs just because some man in a silly hat who claims he has power says we should. We don’t sing and dance about what we believe but we believe it none the less.’