Fin lay on his back looking up at the tree branches above him, hanging over the lane the cart he was stretched on trundled slowly down. He had been in the cart for hours now and the slow pace of it was starting to annoy him. If only there was a faster way of travelling.
The tree branches gave way to pale blue sky. The few clouds Fin could see were streaked with purple. He eyed them in surprise – the journey had been long, but he hadn't realised it was sunset already.
Suddenly the cart shuddered to a halt. Fin sat up and looked around. They had stopped in what looked like a town square – low wooden buildings surrounded them on three sides and the fourth side was a steep, rather rocky side of a hill. There was a well in the middle of the square.
Den, the silent and surly man driving the cart, turned to face Fin. "This is it – Kamnestor," he said gruffly.
Fin nodded, relieved the journey was finally over. He stood up and vaulted over the side of the cart, reaching back for the cloth sack that held his belongings. As he slung it over his shoulder, the door to one of the low buildings opened and a short, middle-aged woman hurried out into the square. She wore and apron over her clothes and her hands were covered in flour.
"Good day, Den," she called out as she approached. Fin looked round at Den; he merely nodded at the woman, who was now standing in front of Fin.
"You must be Finlay Kranos," she said, smiling at him. "Welcome to Kamnestor – I'm Marissa, Marissa Berlios."
She wiped her hand on her apron and held up her palm. Fin pressed his palm against hers in greeting.
"Thanks," he said. "Please call me Fin." Marissa smiled brightly at him.
"That I will, Fin," she said. "I'm sorry that only I am here to greet you – most of the others are having a rest or they're still in the fields. You're here earlier than we expected."
Fin couldn't imagine the journey having taken longer, but kept his thought to himself.
"That's alright," he said instead. "Is there anything I can do to help them?"
Marissa chuckled. "Eager, aren't you?" She said. "No dear, I'll just show you to your house and then you can meet everyone at dinner."
"I'll be off, then," said Den from behind Fin.
"Not staying for a meal, Den?" Asked Marissa.
In answer to her question Den flipped the reins in his hands and the cart started forward. It circled around Fin and Marissa and started back up the tree-lined lane.
"Talkative, isn't he?" Said Fin as they watched the cart roll away.
Marissa chuckled again. "You get used to Den," she said. "He's through here quite often – he was dropping off another new worker here only yesterday, actually."
Fin nodded and followed Marissa across the square and along a path between the buildings. The path brought them out to the top of a hill, and the rest of the village lay out before them.
Kamnestor certainly had a good location. The town square was on flat ground but the rest of the village buildings were built into the side of a hill that sloped gently down to the fields below. The patchwork crop fields spread out to the edge of a forest that Fin could just see in the distance, and behind that, many miles away, there was a mountain range that stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. A river wound its way through the fields, like a giant blue snake, and here and there Fin could just make out people tending the fields.
Marissa led Fin down the path between low wooden houses, most of them the same size. They passed one building that was larger than the others, and Fin could hear the sound of children's laughter from inside.
Fin followed Marissa to a house about halfway down the hill, set a little back from the path.
"This one will be yours," she said. "I'd better get back, Fin, I hope you don't mind…"
"Of course not," Fin assured her. "Thanks for your help."
"It was my pleasure," she said. "My husband will be back soon – I'll send him down to you and we'll give you a proper welcome tonight."
Fin grinned. "I'll look forward to it," he said.
Marissa smiled back. "Alright then, see you then."
Fin watched Marissa start back up the path, relieved that the first person he had met here had been so nice. After the journey with Den he had been slightly worried that the people in this part of Fizan would be equally distant with him. It looked like he needn't have worried – he wasn't even the only new person in the village.
Fin pushed open the wooden door and stepped into his new house. It was much like he'd expected – a fair-sized room with simple furniture. The evening sunlight poured through one of the two windows and fell on the bed, which stood in the middle of the room opposite the door. There stood a small table next to the bed, and next to that was a plain wooden chest. A larger table with two chairs stood against the wall just next to the door.
Fin didn't have many possessions to unpack, so before long all his clothes were stowed in the trunk and his books and other belongings were arranged on the table.
Luckily, Marissa was good to her word and there was soon a knock on Fin's door.
Marissa's husband was large – both in height and girth – and his weathered face was almost split in two by a huge smile. The laughter lines round his twinkling brown eyes were proof of his geniality. Fin liked him at once.
"Pleased to meet you, Fin," he said, holding up his palm in greeting. "I'm Dino Berlios."
Fin pressed his palm against Dino's, smiling widely.
"The pleasure's mine," he said, as their hands dropped. "Thanks for coming down to say hi. Do you want to come in?"
Dino shook his head. "Actually I came down to tell you dinner's being prepared just up the hill," he said, gesturing over his shoulder. "Every few days the entire village gets together and we cook something up."
"It is," said Dino, still grinning. "It'll give you a chance to meet everyone – come on."
Fin stepped out of the house and closed the door behind him, and started to follow Dino back up the path towards the town square. The sun had set while he had been unpacking, and the sky was now a deep purple. A few stars had appeared in the sky and the moon was almost full, casting shadows over the path.
Up ahead, on top of the hill, there was the flickering orange light of a large fire.
"Everyone knows each other here, and we all like getting together like this," Dino explained as they climbed. "Everyone's real friendly."
He shot a grin at Fin. "I hear you got on well with Den," he said.
Fin rolled his eyes. "He didn't say more than three words to me for the whole journey here," he said.
Dino laughed – a huge, boisterous laugh that made his whole body shake. "Don't take it personal, he's like that with everyone," he said. "Keeps to himself, but he's alright. You'll see him again soon."
"So I hear," said Fin. They were quite close to the square now and Fin could hear laughter and many people talking. He felt a little nervous all of a sudden – he would be living in Kamnestor for a long while, hopefully, and he wanted to make a good first impression on the people he would be living with.
They had now reached the back of the building Marissa had emerged from earlier, and Dino clapped Fin on the shoulder as they skirted round it and into the square. Fin appreciated the gesture.
The square was full of people. It was so strange that he hadn't seen any of them when he had first got to the village, because there were a good one hundred and fifty people there. There were several fires which people were grouped around, talking and laughing. Barrels of drink were dotted over the square, and many of the people were holding tankards of whatever was in them. Children were running in between the adults, laughing and shouting to each other. The delicious smell of spices filled the air.
Several people called out to them as they entered the square, and Fin was soon introduced to half a dozen people, all of whom pressed his hand and happily welcomed him with smiles and what turned out to be a very strong ale. They treated Fin as though he was a long-lost member of the family, and within a few minutes all trace of nervousness he had previously felt was gone. These people were kind and friendly and made Fin feel right at home.
Fin looked around the square. He was beginning to think that Kemnestor might just be the home he was looking for.
Two small children almost knocked Fin over as they ran past him, laughing loudly. He laughed and watched them run away across the square. They ran over to where four large pots were suspended over a low, long fire, and got lost in the crowd gathering in front of the pots. On the other side of the fire Marissa and several other women were busily preparing the food and adding ingredients to the pots in front of them. Marissa was laughing at something the woman next to her said as she stirred the contents of the pot nearest to her.
Fin raised his tankard to his lips and went to turn away when the woman Marissa was talking to turned round and he caught sight of her face.
Fin stared. The flickering light of the fire next to her was bathing her in an orange glow – her honey-blonde hair was shining like gold and her dark skin was almost red in the light. She was chopping ingredients on the table in front of her, and she moved with such effortless grace that it almost hurt to watch.
But Fin did watch. He couldn't tear his eyes away from her. Dino and the others he stood with kept talking, and he even added a few words to the conversation himself, but always he kept looking back at the woman by the fire. Fin was sure he had never seen her before – he knew for a fact that he would remember someone like that if he had – but he couldn't shake the feeling that he knew her from somewhere. It was stupid, he knew he didn't. And yet it was as though something about her had reached out and caught him, and it was the strangest feeling because it was something he had never felt before and yet seemed so familiar.
All Fin knew for sure was that he had to find out who she was.
Erianna carefully ladled out a portion of the food into a bowl and handed it to the young girl on the other side of the table.
"Be careful – it is very hot," she said as she gave it to her.
The little girl smiled her thanks and turned away, and Erianna found herself face to face with Risi, one of the boys of the village that she had met yesterday. Erianna had a feeling that he may have taken a liking to her, which unnerved her as he was a very sweet boy and she did not want to hurt his feelings.
He smiled brightly at her. "Hello, Erianna," he said, slightly breathlessly.
Erianna gave him a small smile back. "Hello, Risi," she said. "Let me get you some food." She turned away quickly – the look of open adoration on his face was a little much.
"How was your first day, Erianna?" He asked as she ladled out some food for him.
"It was very pleasant, thank you Risi," she said, handing the bowl with his food over to him. He did not move.
"I'm sorry I couldn't show you round some more," he said. "I had to go out to the fields with my Fa- with the men."
Erianna managed to hide her smile. She nodded. "That is quite alright, Risi," she said. "You are very busy – and so am I. And I believe I can find my way around well enough."
Risi looked slightly put out and opened his mouth to speak, but Erianna cut him off before he could. "I am sorry, Risi, but there are many people waiting behind you," she said gently.
Risi nodded, looking thoughtful. "Thanks for the food, Erianna," he said. "It looks real good."
"You are welcome, Risi," she said. The boy moved on and Erianna smiled indulgently as he disappeared into the crowd.
She had never heard the voice before, but even in the split second between hearing the word and looking round to see who had spoken it, Erianna knew who the voice belonged to.
Sure enough, the man from the other side of the square was now standing just on the other side of the table, directly across from her. A small smile played on his lips and the fire behind Erianna reflected in his eyes, which were boring into hers. Erianna had noticed him across the square talking to Marissa's husband and some of the other men, and had seen the way he was looking at her. He did it when he thought she was not looking, but she had seen him – he had been staring at her for the past half hour.
Erianna did not find that unnerving in itself – many of the villagers were staring at her, since she had only arrived the day before and they were curious about her. But something about this man's stare made it difficult for Erianna to breathe properly. And now, with him standing only a few feet away and looking her straight in the eye, she felt as though the fire next to her had engulfed her without her noticing.
Somehow she knew what was going to happen. He would smile at her and she would melt. She did not know why she was so sure, and melting when men smiled at her was not something Erianna did on a regular basis, but something about this man – whom she had never met before – held her captivated.
And all he had said was 'hello'.
Erianna realised she had been staring at him in silence for several seconds and quickly found her voice. "Good evening," she said. Her voice sounded relatively normal, which she was grateful for.
"I'm Fin," he said.
Erianna's eyebrows went up. The name 'Fin' had been on everybody's lips today. "You are the new arrival," she said.
Fin nodded, and the small smile grew slightly. Erianna's heart sped up and she swallowed.
"That's me," he said. "Though I'm told I'm not the only one."
"You are not," Erianna told him, unable to stop herself smiling back. "I arrived yesterday."
Fin's eyebrows went up and were almost hidden by his long black hair, which fell thick and flat against his head and flopped over his forehead. Erianna had to fight the urge to brush his hair out of his eyes.
"My name is Erianna," she said instead.
Fin opened his mouth to reply but at that moment Lana, a woman who was standing behind Erianna, nudged her subtly but firmly in the back, and she suddenly realised that this was most probably not the best time for such a conversation.
She quickly turned to the pot next to her and ladled out a portion of food for Fin. She held out the bowl to him and as he took it from her their fingers brushed, and a tingling sensation shot up Erianna's arm. She looked back at Fin and saw that his eyes were once again boring into hers.
Then he smiled at her.
Erianna put her hands on the table top and hoped that no one noticed she was not breathing.
"Thanks, Erianna," he said. Then he was gone.
Erianna managed to take a deep breath and then looked up at the next person in line, seemingly composed.
But she was not. She did not know who Fin was or where he had come from, but that short conversation had permanently discomposed her.
And Erianna felt more alive than she ever had.