Ani didn’t wake Rowena up the next morning, so the sun was well up in the sky by the time she emerged in the kitchen downstairs. Ani was sitting by the fire mending a hole in one of her dresses when she looked up to welcome Rowena.
‘Good morning. Did you sleep well?’
‘I don’t think I’ve ever slept better.’
‘That’s what a day on a market stall does for you. Can I get you anything to eat?’
‘No, thank you, but I really should be going. I have to get home.’‘Please stay for a little while longer,’ Ani begged. ‘I can’t send you off without eating anything, I would never be able to forgive myself.’ Rowena couldn’t refuse the pleading eyes that were looking up at her from the chair by the fire and her resolve quickly vanished.
‘Alright then, but I can’t stay too long, I really should be getting on the road.’
‘Great, let me get you some tea.’ Before Rowena could do anything to stop her, Ani was out of her chair, putting tealeaves into a cup and pouring freshly boiled water over them. ‘Would you like anything with your bread? I think I may have a little butter I could spare, and maybe some jam.’
‘No, I don’t need any of that, I prefer it plain.’ Rowena interrupted before she could start searching for more food. Rowena had begun to grasp just how precious commodities like butter and jam were to ordinary people. In the palace back home, they were on the breakfast table every morning, but after seeing how much people had to pay for it at the market the day before, she was beginning to realize how lucky she was.
‘Alright then,’ Ani said, handing her a cup of hot tea and two slices of fresh bread on a plate. Rowena took a chunk of bread and began nibbling on it, wanting to make it last.
‘Has Fialka come down yet?’ Rowena asked, looking towards the staircase.
‘Fialka left hours ago,’ Ani said without looking up from her sewing. ‘She never hangs around for long. Sometimes she has left before I’m out of bed and doesn’t wait to say goodbye. She’s not one for sentimentality.’
‘I would have liked to have thanked her,’ Rowena said, thoughtfully sipping her tea. ‘I have been beginning to learn the value of people who are kind to me and I’ve realized I couldn’t get where I am now without them.’
‘Well I think that Fialka believes that by helping her on the stall yesterday, your debt to her is paid.’
‘But I don’t feel it is enough. The last people who helped me to get this far have ended up dead, and they were some of the best people I have ever known.’
‘Then I’m sure for Fialka still being alive is payment enough.’
‘And what can I do to repay you? You who have been so kind and generous to me, taking me in when you didn’t have to, feeding me, giving me a place to sleep.’
‘It wasn’t all out of selflessness,’ Ani pointed out. ‘I like having the company. I live alone in this house, except for the occasional visit from Fialka, but you are the first young person I’ve had in this house for a long time. You must be nineteen? Twenty?’
‘Eighteen,’ Ani echoed wistfully. ‘I can remember what it was like to be eighteen. It was only five years ago but it feels like an eternity. I was in love with the best man in the world; I had a future and a life. Now I have nothing, only broken dreams.’ Rowena reached out tentatively and took hold of Ani’s hand, stroking it gently with her fingers.
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Don’t be,’ Ani said, looking up from her dress and straight into Rowena’s eyes. ‘After all isn’t it better to have loved someone with all your heart and lost them to a pointless war than to have never loved them at all?’
‘I suppose,’ Rowena said, her mind instantly conjuring up Artem’s face. ‘But it hurts so much.’ She tried to stifle the sob that was building up inside her but it escaped, making her body jolt forward. Once that first sob was out there was no stopping the flood of tears that followed.
‘Oh my darling,’ Ani dropped her sewing and took the tea and bread from Rowena’s lap before throwing her arms around her. Rowena couldn’t say it was the best hug she had ever received. Ani was so skinny and bony that she felt she would break her if she hugged her back, but she felt so much better for the human contact. ‘What is it?’ Ani cooed in her ear.
‘I loved him so much Ani, and it’s my fault he’s dead.’ A fresh wave of sobs consumed her and Ani gently rocked her backwards and forwards, whispering softly into her hair.
‘I’m sure that’s not true.’
‘It is,’ Rowena insisted through her tears. ‘I was too scared to tell him who I really was, and if I had spoken earlier then I wouldn’t have been so scared Erik would hurt him by telling the truth, and we could have dealt with him before he could attack.’ She was aware she was making no sense, but her mouth kept moving, the words spilling out of her mouth like an uncontrollable river of sound. ‘And then, when I could have helped him, I ran. Idiot that I was, I ran as fast as I could to save my own skin. I thought he was right behind me.’ Her sobs had calmed down now and Ani was kneeling in front of her, holding her hands and looking concerned.
‘I’m sure you did everything you could,’ she reached up and brushed a strand of Rowena’s hair away from her face. ‘And I know that he would rather you were alive now, and safe here with me, than dead. I know that’s what Kane would have wanted.’
‘Can you tell me about him?’ Rowena sniffed, blinking away the tears from her eyelashes. ‘What was he like?’
‘He was perfect. Not handsome in the way that you would think, but he made me feel safe. He had the same green eyes as Fialka and the messy blonde hair of his father. And he definitely had his father’s sense of humor.’ They both laughed at that. ‘He was a big man, about six foot two and all muscle. He’d worked with his dad on the farm ever since he could hold a spade so he was used to manual labour and was very strong. I suppose that’s why they picked him first for the war effort. He was twenty then and I was eighteen, your age.
‘I’ll always remember his laugh, low and rumbling, like the ground would shake under your feet if he laughed any louder. He had such a good sense of humour and didn’t mind that he was the butt of everyone’s jokes. He laughed as loudly as the rest of them. And his smile, how warm it made me feel inside whenever he smiled at me.
‘And every time he touched me, I knew how special he thought I was and how much he loved me. I don’t know how but I just knew. He was my best friend, always there for me, ready to pick up the pieces when something had gone wrong. I thought he would always be there for me.’
‘He probably still is,’ Rowena said kindly. ‘In whatever way he can be.’
‘I know he is,’ Ani smiled, her eyes glazing over as she remembered a different time, long ago, when things were brighter. ‘Now it’s your turn. Talk to me about him.’