Eye to Eye
The low hum in the marketplace of Fort Badon increased in volume as the early spring sun hauled itself to the height of the heavens, its subtly warm rays casting delightful pillars of rare sunlight on the dusty grounds below.
As lunch hour approached, a flurry of activity awakened the sleepy bazaar. Bakers brandished aromatic loaves of bread hot from the furnaces, farmers arrived with baskets newly picked vegetables and preserved spices, women laid out children's sweets and treats, a boy and his dairy cow at the end offered rich cheese and milk.
The first shout rang out as a tired worker stepped into the patiently awaiting marketplace, all others joining in a chorus when more hungry and eager customers followed.
Ailith was amongst one of the famished noon crowd, but her mood was sour. Her eyes were bleary and her back was sore, while her fingers sported numerous punctures attributable to her employer's relentless condemnation of her clumsiness, to which she denied but did not protest against lest her ears were entitled to even lengthier disturbance.
She let the others swarm about her, looking neither left nor right, ignoring the desperate calls of the sellers beckoning to her and the tempting scents of food.
Her fingers played with the small, lonesome coin that sat in her pocket. Her pay had been stripped away for every stitch that strayed a fraction of an inch from the hemline, and for every minute beyond the deadline demanded by the client. Ailith clenched her teeth and let her shabby boots scrape the ground more viciously than necessary in vice. She did not look forward to another night's meal of stale bread accompanied by prayers of her employer's tragic death that would soon come by.
Ailith risked a glance at the stalls she was walking by, and immediately regretted it when her eyes caught a little girl sucking joyfully sucking on a sweet treat while holding a piece of buttered bread in the other hand. She quickly looked ahead of her again, tactfully disregarding the rumble of her empty stomach.
The crowd thinned out towards the end of the marketplace, where the remaining stock from the past few days were sold. Ailith strode past the dozing baker from whom she bought her bread, and joined a small cluster which huddled round a large barrel.
"How much?" Ailith asked the hawker, a graying man who stood in the shades, fanning himself with his hat.
"A coin fer an apple," he replied gruffly.
She gave him the coin, and he nodded to the barrel where two women were busy searching for the ideal fruit.
Ailith tucked her long, loose curls behind her ears and joined the hunt, hoping to find an apple that was not bruised or rotting, and was of decent size as lunch.
Her eyes suddenly alighted upon a shade of striking red amidst the pale apples, and she swiftly reached down, but her locks tumbled to curtain her eyes. Frustrated, she gathered the offensive hair in her hand and swept it from her face, holding it secure, then bent down again.
With a gasp, she realized her apple had disappeared.
She straightened her aching spine instantaneously, and saw a tall man dressed in dark tones paying the farmer, her apple in his hand.
Ailith was not the kind who took a liking to stirring up trouble or speaking up for herself, but the continual unfortunate events- late nights, dreadfully inadequate meals and infuriatingly unreasonable criticism- of the past few days gave her a fierce courage that she never knew she possessed.
In a huff, she had gathered up her dress and sprinted after the man.
"Sir!" she called out as she closed the distance between them. "Sir!"
The man kept walking, oblivious to her cries. Giving a strangled growl, she grabbed the man's elbow and dragged him around.
She had jumped at the ferocity of the man's glare as he roughly extracted his arm from her grasp. She bit back a lashing her tongue had wanted to let loose, her head clear enough to prevent her from doing anything rash to a man who was a good two heads taller than her with a dagger at his belt. A blue tattoo on his cheekbone marked him a foreigner. She tore her eyes away from the elaborately ornamented hilt of the weapon and looked at him in the eye, not bothering to hide her annoyance.
"Sir, you have taken my apple," she said plainly, pointing to the plump, ripe apple he held loosely in one hand.
"I paid for it," he said simply, his voice as unpolished as his well-worn clothing and unkempt hair. His drawling accent confirmed her presumption.
"As I did," she replied, an edge to her voice.
"My purchase was not met with resistance," he said, sounding almost bored.
Ailith glared at him, planting her hands on her hip. "I saw the apple first, and I was about to claim it when I was- when I was obstructed," she finished in a rush. "Therefore it is mine."
His response was terse and simple. "Prove it."
Ailith gaped at him rather ungracefully. "I beg your pardon?"
"How do I know if you are honest in your words?" he asked, folding his arms neatly in front of his chest, his dark eyes boring down on her in a steely manner.
She was thrown into a struggle for a coherent answer. For all honesty, she had expected him to be a gentleman and return the apple to its rightful owner without all these questions- she was a lady after all. At least a woman, if not a lady.
"If you have no proof, then perhaps I should cease this waste of time," the man said rudely, making to leave.
Ailith gasped at his discourtesy, an indignant blush creeping onto her face.
"I mourn the death of chivalry," she told him snappishly, lifting her chin to glare at him. "You should be ashamed of your selfishness."
Without returning to the stall to take back the little of her salary, she spun around and ran out of the marketplace in a fury.
Ailith worked the afternoon away with an unusual consistency and insistence fuelled by the burning anger in her empty stomach. Her employer seemed to notice, as she only gave her one or two scathing comments, then moved on to gnaw at the ear off another newcomer.
She worked till the sun began to set, when the young women put aside their needlework owing to the waning light. The owner of the little seamstress shop had left early, complaining of an acute stomachache. Ailith suspected that the gods had decided to answer her persevering prayers.
"I am so hungry," complained Ailith as she took her seat on a little stool in the backyard of the shop, dumping a tunic she had just finished into basin of water.
"Did you not have lunch? I thought you went to the marketplace," said Caterina, a girl of her age who had worked at the seamstress' for only a few weeks.
Ailith scowled. "I was trying to forget about that."
Caterina eyed her skeptically, but did not reply. Ailith focused her attention on rubbing the grime off the clothes in her keeping.
After a few moments of busy silence, Brigit, another apprentice of the seamstress, burst into the backyard, a pretty blush to her cheeks.
"He's here!" she squealed happily, grabbing Ailith's shoulders.
"Who is here?" the latter asked, not too pleased with the hysteric interruption.
"The dark knight! The handsome, mysterious one!" Brigit jumped in excitement. Then gasped in horror. "Oh my, I can't go out there! I look ghastly."
Caterina rolled her eyes and Ailith dried her hands on her dress, getting on her feet.
"I shall go, the mistress shall not be pleased to lose a few pennies," said Ailith flatly, then walked back into the shop.
She carefully walked past the fully occupied space of the shop, forcing a polite smile on her weary face.
"Good evening, how may I help-" she broke off abruptly, her mouth hanging open awkwardly.
If he recognized her, he did not show it. He handed her a piece of clothing which she took wordlessly, her eyes asking what she should do with if not tearing it into shreds.
"It needs to be patched up," he said quietly, countering her irate gaze.
"Come back tomorrow to pick it up," she all but snapped, turning to go back to the backyard when his voice stopped her.
"What do you mean by 'now'?" she asked crossly. "It is sundown and our needles and threads are put away for the night."
"I need it tomorrow," he said stiffly.
"Then you shouldn't have torn it right?" she retorted.
Ailith's heart skipped a beat when he stepped forward, seeing the intimidating glint in his eyes.
"Woman, I asked you to patch my tunic," he bent and growled in her ear. "Patch it."
Ailith's anger flared, stumbling backwards. "You talk as if I were your slave, which I certainly and fortunately am not." She threw the tunic at him, not caring if it would anger him. "Take it elsewhere where the seamstress is willing."
She turned on her heel and stalked back to the backyard where Brigit was waiting impatiently.
"What did he want?" she asked, squealing.
"He wanted to end our misery by sending away our good mistress," answered Ailith curtly, picking up a dress she was washing.
Both girls' eyes widened in disbelief. "He did?" asked Caterina, finding her voice.
"No!" snapped Ailith. "Now if you would let me finish my work, I would like to go home by seven tonight."
Somehow, Ailith ended up the last to leave, as usual. She found herself mending a torn hemline under the light from two candles, her eyes swimming with fatigue. Her fingers slipped now and then, the sharp stabs of the needle the only thing keeping hazy mind awake.
It must be at least nine, she thought dully as she shifted the heavy dress on her working table. She sighed and looked down at the beautiful dress. How unfair life was! All she was ever entitled to was mending such extravagant pieces of clothing, when those rich ladies could don these dresses to parties without having to lift a finger!
Ailith cut off the end of the thread a few minutes later, collapsing onto the soft, comfortable fabric in exhaustion. Finally, it was time to go home.
Slowly, she got up and held the dress up, ready to fold it up and leave it to the pile waiting to be collected. But she simply stared at the midnight blue gown, and wondered, just wondered, what it felt like to wear it.
Her heart beating in anticipation, and with a breathlessness that only came with the exhilaration of going against the rules, she changed into the dress she had been patching up the past week, savouring the sweet smoothness of velvet against her skin as she stepped into the dress, a smile on her lips.
She resisted the urge to laugh once she had finished up the buttons, and spun around in a circle, suddenly full of energy. The dress was a bit small for her, hanging an inch or two above her ankle, but still, it fit comfortably. Lamenting the absence of a mirror, Ailith bounded into the backyard, running her eyes over the velvety beauty appreciatively in the bright moonlight.
How much difference a single piece of clothing could make! She thought as she skipped around the backyard, her hands clutching the rich fabric while she spun in circles, making up a dance of her own as she envisioned beautifully groomed ladies and gentlemen around her, bathed in mellow light, dancing to elegant music in the background.
It felt so real, so vivid in her mind that she was unaware that she was no longer alone.
Ailith let out an alarmed shriek when someone in the shadows cleared their throat.
"You startled me!" she said, her voice still high from her astonished cry.
"I beg your forgiveness," said the man whom she had the displeasure to meet thrice that day.
Ailith's breathing had returned to normality. She regarded him coldly. "What do you want?"
Slowly, he held out the same tunic she threw at him earlier that day.
"I told you, we do not do sewing after sunset," she said bluntly.
"You were mending the dress," he said quietly, but with the surety of a man who never made mistakes.
Ailith blushed, thankful for the dark of the night. "Were you watching me?"
"I passed by," he replied.
She snorted, then marched to him and snatched the tunic out of his hands. She glared at him openly. "Alright. I will mend it. But I will charge you twice the price."
She thought she saw a brief look of amusement in his eyes, before he answered gravely, "Agreed."
Ailith worked quickly and fluidly, the knight's presence somehow sharpening her senses. Perhaps she did not want to make a fool out of herself in front of him. Besides, it was just simple patchwork.
"My friend told me you are a knight," she made an attempt at small talk.
"Yes, I am," came his reply.
She glanced at him. He was leaning nonchalantly on the threshold, blocking the way to the backyard, watching her work.
"Are you from Rome?" she asked, turning back to her work.
She could not see him stiffen, but his voice was hard when he answered. "I am from Sarmatia."
"Oh," said Ailith simply. "Is your name Tristan?"
She looked up and saw him raise an eyebrow. "Yes, it is."
"My friend is quite smitten with you," she said with a smirk.
"Is she?" he asked.
Ailith, feeling mischievous, said airily, while turning the tunic to a more suitable angle. "Oh, he's a young lad."
She casually peered at him, and broke into a fit of stifled laughter when she saw his expression, which instantly vanished the moment he realized she was toying with him.
"You enjoy teasing?" he asked darkly.
"Only when I am asked to sew up a torn tunic late at night," she replied haughtily.
He made no reply, and she did not mind. Not long after that she finished the last stitch, and sighed triumphantly.
"There," she shook the loose threads off and held the tunic up for Tristan, smiling. "All done."
He inclined his head and took it, his words laborious. "Thank you."
"Does it take so much to thank someone?" she asked without looking at him as she put away her working tools.
"I am not used to it," he replied simply.
"You'd better do, not many would agree to mending a tunic so late at night," said Ailith with a small smile.
"You would not forgive me for that, would you?" he asked, watching her move around the small space with a practiced air.
"I never condemned you," she pointed out, blowing out the two candles, plunging them into darkness.
She followed him to the door, and said, "You must have really good eyesight. It is difficult to walk in that shop even in broad daylight."
"I am a scout," he explained, stepping onto the street. She felt his eyes on her back as she locked the door of the shop, blushing involuntarily at his attention.
"I mean no offense," he said as she turned around, desperately trying to hide her face behind her hair. "But is that dress yours?"
She gasped and looked down at the dress. "Oh gods! I forgot!" She then shot him a glare. "If only you had not interrupted me!"
He rose his hands as if in surrender, and Ailith scowled at him while unlocking the door. She had opened the door when a hand on her elbow stopped her.
"I have to go," he said.
"So go," snapped Ailith moodily. "No need to be apologetic over your departure, just give me my pay so I can buy a decent meal for tomorrow."
"Are you still cross over the fact that I got that apple?"
"I am not cross! I am furious and I am hungry!" she burst out. "Now if you would excuse me."
But he did not let go. He locked his eyes with hers and pressed a small pouch in her hand. She frowned and shook her head.
"That is more than five times the pay for patching up a tunic," she said, looking away. "I cannot take it."
Tristan shrugged. "Your choice. I am not leaving with it."
He turned and walked away, and she stared at his straight back for a while.
He turned around and she half-smiled. "I am Ailith," she said, feeling rather stupid.
He nodded at her. "Goodnight Ailith."
Ailith was the first to arrive at the shop the next morning, a smile clinging to her lips without her aware of it. She drank in the warm sunlight that caressed her back as she opened the front door, for once glad that she was alone in the silence of morning.
As she reached her table, she was surprised to find it occupied.
She then laughed and she took the apple she had fought over and finally won, and bit into its juicy fruit. She watched the cottage across the street light up in the growing light, while her other hand played with the jingling pouch in her pocket.
She was glad she ran after the dark knight after all.