Heart of Time

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Chapter 2

“Please welcome, with great applause, the fastest girl alive!“ Luca shouted and the crowd clapped and cheered dutifully. I’d been waiting for hours, or so it seemed, and now my time had finally come. I straightened the folds of my simple blue dress one last time, and took a deep breath. Almost time for me to enter. Luca had turned on his feet and now walked towards me, grinning widely. He winked at me, takes a mock bow and walked past me, whistling softly.

I decided that I had waited long enough and entered the arena, waving and smiling at the audience. The tent was almost full; many people had come tonight. It was our first performance ever in Ashenfields, and the villagers seemed to have come with their entire families. I could see that some have brought baskets filled with beer and food, and many of the people watching me were in the process of eating noisily. When they saw my performance, I hoped they would stop eating, frozen by shock and amazement. I reached the middle of the tent, I stopped and bowed in all directions. The sand under my bare feet gave me something to keep me grounded as I blinked in the bright lights that were directed at me. Slowly, and with as much drama as I could conjure, I walked towards the long rope ladder on the other side of the ring. Here, I made a show of testing the stability of the ladder, before swiftly climbing it. I was used to its swing and kept my body close to the ropes, without looking down at the audience.

Once I’d reached the small wooden platform, I bowed once again to the crowd. Then, I reached for the single red rose that I had kept hidden below my gymnastic suit’s neckline. I had removed its thorns earlier tonight, so that I could now grasp it with my full hand. The stem, not much longer than my hand is wide, was still wet from the water it had stood in and a little slippery to hold. Slowly, I increased the pressure, and closed my eyes. First, I centered myself and focussed on my own breathing. I could feel the air go in through the nose, feel the little hairs move in my nostrils, the coolness when it passed through my pharynx. The coolness spread when the air entered my lungs and my ribcage expanded in one fluid movement. Here, I left the breath and flowed on as nothingness, towards my beating heart, then up the aorta, running with the blood into my right arm, down all the way until the skin on my finger tips stopped my progress. I collected myself, then focussed on my index finger. I made myself sharp and long as a needle, and slowly forced myself out of my body, into the rose. It took some time to adjust, then I let my consciousness feel the shape of the rose and fill it up completely. Suddenly, I felt the loss of my thorns, the first sign of withering in my petals, the intake of air where there should be water. I felt it all, and with one practised movement, I made myself round and small and even smaller, pulling the essence of the rose with me, back through the tiny opening in my index finger. I expanded, filling up my human body once more, until I was back again where I started, except that I now I had the link down to the rose that was still clenched in my hand. I opened my eyes, and suddenly the noise of the crowds reached my ears again. I knew I had only stood on the platform for some seconds, but it felt like I had been up there for hours. I breathed in deeply, clutched the rose to my side and focussed on the task ahead.

I made the first step, and time slowed down. Seconds, molten into syrup, slowly floated by like leaves on a river. I concentrated, and the river slowed down to a gentle trickle. Time is slackened. Every second now stretches endlessly, becoming longer and longer, until it encompasses a full minute. Here, I stopped, and let the slow syrup wrap me in its flow. It built a comforting blanket that prevented me from falling from the rope I had just stepped on. The time-syrup around me was warm, and pressed softly against my exposed skin. Walking through it took a lot of energy, but it was worth the exhaustion that would wash over me later - without this safety blanket I would never be able to walk on the rope. My sense of balance wasn’t very well developed.

Step by step, I crossed the rope. My naked feet ached from the rough core rope, so I tried to get it over with as quickly as possible. I didn’t need to spread my arms for balance, the time blanket held me securely in place. I wished I could stay in this moment, relax in the warming timelessness, but I could feel the energy that I was sapping from the rose in my hand quickly draining away. Stopping time was no easy task, and I didn’t want to use too much of my own energy while still on the rope. I could faint and I still had the scar on my leg from the last time that happened.

After thirty or so ells, I arrived on the platform on the other side of the tent. The cool wood under my feet felt refreshing, and I rested for a moment, before taking a deep breath and concentrating on releasing the time stream. I pictured a large golden clock, like the one on the town hall tower in Port Royal, its delicate hands restrained by the shackles I put on them when I first stepped on the rope. Now, I removed them, starting with the smallest hand, until time began to flow more quickly again, accelerating, taking up speed until it was back to normal. The warming blanket was taken away from me, and I could feel a cold draft on my skin.

When I opened my eyes, a wave of exhaustion crashed into me, and I staggered backwards, leaning against one of the tent poles. Below, there was a collective gasp from the audience. For them, I had just raced across the rope in a matter seconds. They would have seen nothing but a blurry figure traversing the tent quicker than they had ever seen anyone move. Some would have lost track of me when I started to move, and only now could see that I was no longer standing on the platform where they last saw me. There were shouts and pointing fingers, as some children spotted me on the other side. It took a while for the clapping to start, and even so it was a cautious noise. I could feel the closeness to the Feran border in the wariness of the applause. Normally, the crowd cheered and clapped raucously, but here the worry of how their wonder would be interpreted dimmed the people’s enthusiasm. Well, nothing I could change about that. It would be different in the next place we’d stop, once we were farther away from Fer and its backward beliefs.

I opened my hands, and let the dust that once was a rose trickle down from between my fingers. She had served her purpose well, but still, I had used more of my own energy than I had planned for.

Without looking down, I stepped onto the rope ladder that led to the ground and began to climb. In the background, music started to play and the three dwarves marched into the tent. The audience was glad to forget my questionable act and clapped loudly as the dwarves began to joggle their colourful rocks.

But I couldn’t care less. Why should they enjoy something that so obviously looks like magic, especially in a place like Ashenfields. We were too close to the Feran border here, too close to the Blue Militia and their ever-lasting hatred. With a sigh, I slipped out of the tent, leaving the laughter and the noise behind me.

“I told you so”, I accused Luca, who was standing outside looking at the night sky. “You should know better than to have me do this here. Did you see their faces?”

“There were some who laughed.”

“And there were some who looked like they would run to the Militia as soon as the show has ended,” I retorted. Luca didn’t understand. He was not the one who had to fear for her life in a place like this.

“You are overreacting,” he told me in a soothing voice. “It’s still at least a day’s ride to the Eternal River, and another one to get to the bridge to Fer. We’re amongst friends here, especially in a place like this. They will not have forgotten the Fifth War, and all the sorrow it brought to the people in the Plains. Don’t worry, nothing is going to happen to you or any one of us. Go, get yourself some food from Mara and then go to bed. You look tired.”

That was so typically Luca. He was as calm as a deep pool in the mountains, nothing coupld stir him, nothing could move him. Sometimes I liked him for it, but today I wanted to punch him in the face and tell him to wake up.

Instead, I walked away into the dark, towards the closest vardo. Light shone through the small windows of the wagon, and the smell of pea soup was getting stronger the closer I get. Before I could knock on the van’s door, Mara opened it, smiling.

“You look like you can use some food,” she said, beaming away, ignoring my grumpy expression. Even though Mara must have seen at least eighty winters, she had the energy of a young child. She ushered me inside, sat me down on the comfortable bench near the rear window, and put a bowl of soup in front of me. Its delicious smell made my mouth water. Mara’s cooking was one of the reasons why I still traveled with the Ghorres.

“How was the performance?“, she asked while cutting a large slice of bread for me.

“Dreadful. I’m sure some people noticed that it wasn’t just some trick. Luca is too reckless, having me do this in Ashenfields. It’s too dangerous.”

Mara smiled and says, “Weird, this coming from you. Normally you’re the one who’s reckless, sweetheart, not Luca.”

“But this time it’s not about walking on a rope or falling from some tree, this time it’s about the Blue Militia. They say they’re quite active here, even though this isn’t yet Gynt’s land. Doesn’t he care about whatw ould happen if they find out?”

“I’m sure he does, child, but maybe you’re seeing the whole thing a bit too bleak. Nothing has ever happened after one of your performances, has it. So why should it today? Now stop worrying and eat your soup. You’ve lost weight again.”

I wanted to answer back, but I knew it was useless. When arguing with Mara, she always made me feel like a child that didn’t know any better. Instead, I turned to my bowl of pea soup. Maybe I was just hurt by the lack of response from the audience. Usually, in other places, I got a lot of applause, even standing ovations. Never had the audience been so quiet. Maybe I was confusing a lack of interest with caution. I supposed the success of my little act had made me vain.

With that thought in mind, I got up and bid Mara goodnight. Some days, I was so exhausted after the show that I went straight to bed, but tonight I felt like I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway.

When I opened the door, warm air pushed against me. The moon shone as a thin crescent, with stars twinkling beside it. In the distance, in the hedges that surround our camp, I could see the flickering light of hundreds of fireflies. They blended easily into the night sky; it was almost impossible to see where the shimmering insects ended and the stars began.

I walked towards the lights of the village, leaving vardos and circus tent behind me.

The only inn in Ashenfields was brightly lit, with flickering candles poked in flower pots outside of it. It was the tallest building in the village, towering over the other houses that lacked the inn’s second storey. The noise of people talking drifted outside and added to the welcoming atmosphere. Just when I was about to enter, two large men spilled out of the inn, arguing loudly over something. I stepped around them and the stink of stale beer that surrounded them, and quickly squeezed inside before the heavy wooden door closed behind me. The noise and smell of dozens of people pressed against me, and I swayed slightly, needing a moment to adapt. “Come on in, princess”, an old man sitting by the door bellowed with a boozy breath. “Come and sit by me.” I smiled at him innocently, then turned away from him and walked towards the counter that sat proudly in the middle of the crowded room. Behind it, a plump man with a soiled apron that had probably not seen any soap in weeks, served the guests. With his red nose and bloated cheeks he looked like he enjoyed to drink a pint or two himself. I squeezed myself through the crowd that the counter drew in like moths drawn to a flame. In front of me, one man slipped from a bar stool and turned to leave, and I gratefully slid onto his vacated seat. The chair was still warm and slightly sticky.

I signalled the innkeeper and ordered a pint of the local beer, putting two copper coins on the counter. A moment later, he put a large clay mug filled with frothy ale in front of me. I took a large sip, and enjoyed the froth tickling the insides of my mouth. It wasn’t not the best beer I’d ever tasted, but it wasn’t too bad either.

The salty pea soup at Mara’s had made me thirsty, and sooner than I’d thought, I could see the bottom of my earthen mug. Once again, I beckoned the innkeeper to refill my mug. He smiled at me with yellowed teeth glistening between his pouting thick lips and exchanged my emptied mug for a full one. The beer was making me more relaxed than I’d been all evening . I leaned back and listened to bits and pieces of conversation that floated through the air towards me, while still leaning over my mug. One man close by was complaining loudly about the continuing drought, while another was bragging about the girl he was suiting in a neighbouring village. I was straining my ears to hear anything besides the usual tavern talk, but without success. There was no discussion of politics here, no news of the world outside this village. I turned back to my tankard and slowly sipped the lukewarm drink and let my thoughts wander off.

“Why is a lovely young lady such as yourself sitting here all on her own? Want some company?” A raspy voice pulled me from my thoughts. A young man slid onto the bar stool next to me. I hadn’t even noticed its former occupant leaving. He was dressed all in black, his tight shirt highlighting his broad shoulders and muscular arms. His face was made up of fine features, only his nose seemed a little out of place, long and pointed as it was. He wore a short dark-blue cape over his shirt, more for decoration than for warmth. The man looked lost in this village inn, his clothes made of finer materials than any of the patrons here possessed. Even his shoes were made from black leather; they were strikingly clean. He couldn’t have travelled far in them.

“No, I’m quite alright on my own”, I replied, but he had already settled on the stool to my left. The innkeeper put a mug of ale in front of him, which he took without nodding a thanks to the landlord.

“Have you noticed that you are the only lady in this place?“, he asked with a slight smirk. “If I were you, I’d be a little worried by that fact. You never know what might befall single women on their travels.”

My good mood vanished immediately. I didn’t like this man, and even though he did not seem too dangerous, I disliked sitting next to him. He took a big gulp from his mug, then looked me in the eyes. They were as dark as his attire, which made the white around the pupils as bright as starlight. His glance bore a challenge that I refused to take.

“You might be right about that. Luckily, I’m not travelling on my own. And now I’d prefer to enjoy my pint on my own.” I tried to sound strong and confident, even though I was a little unsettled by the stranger’s demeanour. He wasright about the fact that there were no other women in the inn, but that was often the case in the places we visit. Usually, I celebrated a successful show together with Luca and the other members of the company. I had even expected to find them here tonight, but maybe I was here too early. After my act, the dwarves would have done their juggling, then Marco would have entertained the audience with his fire spitting, and lastly Luca himself would close the show by thanking the crowd for their coming and encouraging them to spread the word about our show. Usually, the latter would happen automatically anyway, especially in an area such as this, where the only evening entertainment could be found in the village inn. Word of our coming had always spread quickly. Sometimes, villages would prepare a place for our camp and fodder for the horses even before we had actually arrived. But not here, in Ashenfields. Yes, the tent was full of people, but the atmosphere was not as cheery as usual.

The man on my left cleared his throat, pulling me from my thoughts. He must have said something, but I had no idea what. But I wouldn’t admit that to him. He signalled the innkeeper, and reached over to take my empty mug. Before he could do that, I jumped down from my stool, nodded at the innkeeper and turned to the door, without even gracing the black-clad stranger with even a single glance. Suddenly, there was a booming voice behind me.

“Here you are, Eee, I was looking for you. Mara said I might find you here. What are you doing here, all on your own?”

Luca was standing there, beaming away. From the corner of my eye, I saw the stranger slip away from the bar into the crowd at the other end of the room.

“I was just having a drink.”

“Or maybe more than one. You’re swaying a little, sweety.” And again, Luca was belittling me. I was old enough to drink, I was old enough to go out by myself. Yes, I was fairly small and might look younger than I was, but that had nothing to do with my age. On days like this, I felt ancient.

“So, why where you looking for me?”

“I talked to Mara earlier, after she sold the tickets for tonight. She says that many people in the village would like us to stay for an extra day or so. They want to invite their friends and relatives that live farther away from here. It seems they’ve had no companies come through here for more than a decade, and are hungry for some entertainment.” He shot me a wolfish smile. “And how could we refuse them that.”

I frowned while he chuckled softly.

“And what has that got to do with me?”

“Well, you might want to think about doing a different act. Not that yours wasn’t good today, but I’m thinking of putting together a slightly different show for the day after tomorrow. I’ve also told the dwarves to think about juggling torches, or at least something else that’s more exciting than rocks. Then we’ll not only have spectators from other villages, but maybe people who’ve already seen us will come again if we promise them some surprises. Agreed?”

“I guess I’ve got no choice. I’ll have to practice tomorrow though, and need the tent for myself for a few hours.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem, Marco and Cino can practice outside anyway. That’s settled then. Great.”

I nodded and turned towards the door, but he softly grabbed my arm.

“One more thing.” He leaned towards me, almost whispering. “When you were doing your performance, I noticed some silver reflections around your head. You may want to dye your roots again before we get to Hawkfair. Now, tell me, how bad is the beer here?”

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