Loud banging woke me with a start as I slowly drifted in and out of sleep. 6.35am. I groaned defeated. There were only 2 people who would come banging on my door at such an ungodly hour, and neither would be here for a social visit. Stretching wearily, I couldn’t help wonder why I had dreamt of Darrow and Atani. It had been so many years ago. A lump rose in my throat as I heard Marian’s shrill voice whining impatiently, father absently placating her as they waited impatiently outside the bookstore door.
“Finally!” Marian huffed impatiently as I slowly opened the door, staring down at the floor nervously.
Her auburn hair was neatly curled and pinned back sophisticatedly, as if she were attending a royal ball in her flouncy amber and yellow gown. Father pulled absently at his waistcoat, dressed sharply in a fine black suit as he always was. His cold blue eyes narrowed on me as he appraised me for several, painful moments.
“A mess as always I see Mae. Now I expect you know why we are here” He drawled coldly, taking a calculated step inside.
“No sir” I murmured frightened, knowing for well he didn’t believe me.
He never believed me.
“Of course not. Too stupid aren’t you? But we are not young lady!” Marian snarled impatiently as she swept in, glancing around disgusted as if she had just entered a pig sty.
“You were warned. Do not forget what I will do to protect my family. She has nothing to do with you!” Father warned coldly as he shoved a letter into my chest.
I stood there shaking like a leaf in the wind as they stormed out, father graciously holding the door for step-mother. Glancing down, I stared at the roughly opened letter. Had she read it? Looking on the back, my heart broke. It had never reached her. They had read it. Was she going to be alright? I jumped startled when Elise suddenly appeared with an old book clutched in her hands. Smiling falteringly I quickly flipped the sign to open and hurried to the counter, stashing the letter safely on the shelf beneath it. Elise was one of the few customers I had. Most of my payments came from translating old texts and languages. Despite never studying them, I seemed to figure out their meaning as if reading them in my native tongue.
“Could you?” Elise asked hesitantly, gesturing to the book.
“Of course” I smiled softly.
“Thank you! I don’t know how you do it” She grinned excitedly, quickly leaving the book on the counter and rushing out.
I sighed tiredly as I sat on the little stool I kept behind the counter for long days. My hand drifted to the letter, a cold numbness gnawing at me painfully. Would she be in trouble? Would she slip that she had been writing to me? Screwing my eyes tightly shut I took a deep breath and turned my focus onto the book Elise had just brought in. The more I read, the more fascinated I became. It was one of the oldest spell book I had ever come across. I had only one that was older. I was so engrossed in reading that I never noticed when Darrow walked in, whistling brightly.
“Knock, knock” He chuckled, tapping lightly on the counter.
“AH!” I cried panicked, blushing embarrassed as I looked up and saw him standing there.
“Sorry, I couldn’t help myself” He grinned broadly, stroking his beard smugly.
“What brings you here old boy?” I smiled warmly, slipping the book under the counter as I stood to hug him.
His hair and beard were the only signs that he was ageing, with flecks of silver and grey here and there. But there was no sign of him retiring yet. Stubborn as he was, he refused to give up his beloved shop until he could either no longer hold a butchering knife or no longer had the breath in his body to do it.
“Atani has ordered me ta fetch ya” He stated smugly, laughing heartily as I groaned despairingly.
“I’m not in the mood Darrow. Father and Marian have been here, I just want a quiet night in” I grimaced, desperately trying to think of a reason she would accept for my absence.
“Oh no. She made it quite clear not ta come back without ya. Do you even know what day it is today?” Darrow grinned unrepentant, not accepting my begging eyes.
“It’s a day. Just like yesterday and just like tomorrow.” I sighed frustrated as I walked past him and began organizing books on a shelf.
“Come on lass. We ain’t seen ya in so long. You saved my boys life and my wife’s. Why ya keep trying to shut us out?” He sighed softly, fiddling angrily with his beard as he knew better than to try and touch me.
Even if it was meant to be comforting, I had not been able to stand someone touching me in many years. Long before I had even met Darrow and his family that night. My hand absently went to hover protectively over the old scar. No one knew. And no one would. No one could know that even my father hated the very breath I took. How could it be any different with strangers? My own blood despised me.
“I’m sorry. It’s safer that’s all” I sighed softly, knowing they only meant well.
“Not from where I’m standing child” He murmured, carefully pulling me into a hug as I hung my head guiltily.
I froze terrified as I felt his muscled arms wrap around me tightly. My heart began to race as he held me for what seemed like an eternity. Yet mere seconds later he let me go, stepping away without laying a finger on me.
“I hope to see you tonight for dinner.” He murmured sadly before hurrying out of the store.
My heart was racing as the tears slowly rolled down my face. Why hadn’t he hurt me? The only one that had never wanted to hurt me was Axel, but he was only a child. He had been taught that he owed me. It was ridiculous, they owed me nothing. I still couldn’t quite understand why they hadn’t just gotten on with their lives, instead they seemed to obsess about including me and ensuring I was well. I quickly wiped at my eyes as I heard the store bell go once more, laying the books down on the shelf as I hurried back to the counter.
“I know we had a deal but I won’t go less than 850” The gruff trader grunted as he laid a slightly tattered spell book on the counter.
“I do not understand Master trader.” I murmured confused as I stroked my fingers across the old tome before opening the cash register beside me.
“I know how you lot work. Ain’t no idiot, had ta deal with your kind too often” He grunted guardedly as he wiped some of the dirt from his face.
I smiled wryly as I began counting. He had come directly to me as soon as they had arrived. Traders rarely prioritized anything over their stands and wares. Was he having trouble? He eyed me warily as I counted it all out for him to see.
“We had a deal Master trader and I do not go back on my deals. However” I began calmly, smiling amused as he grew angry.
“Now listen here wench!” He began, grinding his teeth as Chris came in looking as bored as ever.
“Prices have changed since the last time we spoke and I would be giving you a dis-service if I remained at the same price as before” I stated, holding the money out to him as he stared shocked.
“But we agreed 900. This is far too much!” He stammered shocked
“At the current market my best offer at the time was 900. Now, it is worth much more and I have no intentions of screwing you over. We both have businesses, we both understand the difference of a single denari.” I smiled reassuringly.
“I won’t forget this. You are an honorable trader, Thank you” He smiled relieved, his shoulders slumping as if a huge weight had been lifted.
I smiled guardedly as he turned and hurried out, resting a hand on the newest book in my collection. Chris was as usual staring intently as he feigned interest in a book he was holding upside down. He had never bought anything since the single time his mother had requested a particular book. Every day like clockwork he would arrive and feign interest in different books as he stared. Two hours would pass and he would leave. Without a single word. He had begun coming in almost as soon as I had taken over from grandmother. Time flew by as I slowly transcribed the spell book Elise had brought in. As if on cue, Chris had left right on time not buying a single thing or engaging me in any way. Just staring. I rubbed my eyes tiredly as I flipped the closed sign down and wandered back to the counter. Sighing frustrated I knew Atani would come banging on the door if I didn’t go. I couldn’t help but wonder if my mother would have been like Atani. Choking back a lump, I hurried up the stairs to the small flat and began rifling through my few pieces of clothes. There was nothing I could wear that would hide the recent weight loss from Atani. Sighing softly, I resigned myself to the looming lecture and changed into a soft blue summer dress. After storing Elise’s book in the store safe, I hurried out and locked the door to the store. Traders were bustling about anxiously getting ready for the festival as I wandered up the street to the butchers shop. I hesitated warily as a well-muscled man stood arguing loudly with Darrow in the doorway to the shop.
“THIS IS DAYLIGHT ROBBERY!” The man snarled, his bright red eyes glittering angrily as he lost his temper.
“Either buy summin or get lost! Don’t need no timewasters!” Darrow snarled back, unperturbed despite how the man stood nearly two full heads higher.
“Good idea, let people who actually wanna trade some space!” A trader snarled impatiently.
“You’re actually gonna pay this” the stranger demanded incredulously.
“Best meat in town” I interjected evenly as the trader’s hand went to his dagger.
“Good to see you Lass, was beginning to worry” Darrow smiled relieved as he saw me, the strangers jumping startled.
“Here I thought ya never left the shop” The trader grinned
“Not without reason. Have to say you have good taste Master trader” I smiled wanly as I realised it was the same man who had sold me the book.
His hair was freshly washed and combed, his skin clean from grime and muck from his travels. A small scar curled up from the right side of his mouth that he rubbed thoughtfully. I eyed the other man warily as he continued to stare wide eyed, tense and ready as if about to pounce on his prey.
“Off with ya now stranger” Darrow warned coldly as he noticed it too.
“You’d turn away business?” The stranger scoffed.
“If they upset ma family I will” He growled threateningly, shock lighting up the two men’s faces as Darrow hurried me inside.
Axel was as usual busily prepping meat with expert precision. He grinned broadly as he saw me, hesitating as he went to race over and hug me as he remembered the deer blood covering his hands.
“So what can I do ya for trader?” Darrow’s voice echoed as he led the trader into the shop.
“Need a restock but I ain’t exactly got full payment” He sighed frustrated
“So what ya have in mind?” Darrow prompted as he eyed me curiously
“No offence but ya don’t look like a dwarf” He blurted out suddenly, blushing embarrassed as he realized what he had just said.
We all burst into fits of laughter making him shuffle nervously. Axel hurried to help his father as tears began rolling down his face from laughing so hard, stumbling breathlessly.
“I’m human.” I smiled amused.
“How’d you know my girl?” Darrow asked breathlessly as he gratefully sat on the stool Axel offered him.
“She bought my book for me. Finally got rid of it, been trying to move it for years” He grinned.
“Another book auntie, really how many do you need?” Axel teased shaking his head confused.
“A good book is irreplaceable” I grinned unrepentant making the trader laugh.
“I think we can come up with a deal” Darrow smiled thoughtfully as Axel flipped the closed sign over after wiping his hands on his apron.
I gave the trader a half wave before reluctantly continuing through the store and up the stairs to the flat above.