By late morning, she was quite sure she'd had to have met most of the town in the few hours she'd been behind the counter. But despite the volume of newcomers, the sea of faces had blurred past in a stream of total strangers.
It would seem that everyone in the near vicinity knew she'd lost her mind.
With each chime of the door, she'd been introduced to yet another person she was supposed to have known since she was born. Each one addressed her as Calara, told her random stories of their week's activities, and commented on happenings she didn't understand. After a while she'd given up trying to remember anything out of the fog that was her past, and settled into studying the people.
Analyzing those who came into the store began as curiosity and a need to know, and ended with too many questions that were left unanswered... starting with why the only visitors to the shop, were men.
She could see the women through the window, dressed in their colourful skirts and blouses, smiling and chatting with each other on the sidewalk and across the central square. Some carried packages. One or two tugged small children about on their errands. It looked almost as busy outside on the street as it did inside the store. Yet only the men ventured inside to pick up supplies.
When she could stand it no longer, she asked Tomas. His response was to laugh and tell her the women should be happy the men were doing all the shopping for once.
She wasn't sure why it was so funny to him, so she let it drop.
During the quiet times, Tomas and Maron would retreat to the back, their whispered conversation too quiet to reach her ears. She had no doubts she was the topic of their conversation, but at the same time, she was probably the topic of conversation across the whole village. She distracted herself by drawing random sketches on a scrap of note paper while she tried to catch what they were saying. Whenever they returned to her she hid the paper under the sums pad. She had no idea why she wanted to keep it from Tomas, only that she must.
The brief chunks of quiet were quickly interrupted by the next wave of curious villagers. Introductions and explanations were once again given, and pleasantries exchanged. Her cheeks were stinging from forcing herself to smile. A few of the late morning customers actually made purchases, but she understood it was more for show. They were there as an excuse to check out the sideshow that was her inability to remember anything.
She'd done her best to record the purchases neatly in the journal as required, but Maron's overly watchful attention whenever she handled the money made her nervous. It hadn't taken her long to understand that despite Tomas' assurances that Maron was there for her protection, it wasn't the patrons he was watching, it was her. Every time she moved, he shifted his grip on his rifle as though he expected her to leap over the counter and take him down like some kind of warrior princess.
At the thought, an image danced across her mind.
A beautiful woman with long flowing hair, spinning gracefully around a soldier with dark hair, her bare feet connecting solidly to send him crashing to the floor. The warrior woman laughed at the victory and the soldier laughed at the loss.
The vision called to her with such force it gave her an instant headache. She dropped her head into her hands and rested her elbows on the counter.
A presence passed in front of her and she opened her eyes, looking up into Tomas face. "Are you unwell?" he asked, his eyes narrowed.
She nodded. Perhaps he would let her go lie down. The sooner she could avoid meeting any more people, the better.
Tomas turned to Maron. "Go get her another bowl of Thea's soup."
"What about her?" Maron questioned.
"I'm here," Tomas answered, withdrawing a small key from his pocket and unlocking the door that lead back down the hallway to the kitchen. "Just go get the soup."
She shook her head at the thought of another bowl of that disgusting slop. The vision had gone, the dizziness abated. She didn't need the bitter soup. "I'm fine," she lied, forcing herself to smile.
"It is not for you to choose," Tomas said firmly, closing the door behind the retreating Maron. "You will eat the soup."
A chime over the door announced the arrival of yet another customer. As she turned her attention to the front, her lungs froze at the sight of the man striding into the small shop.
In stature alone he managed to overpower the entire room. Taller than Tomas by a head. Taller than her by even more. But his size and mass was not wide and sloppy like Maron's. Oh no. Where Tomas and Maron were soft and bulky, this man was lean.
Headache forgotten, she couldn't stop staring at him.
He wore black leather pants tucked into worn black boots, and a black vest covering a black shirt. His muscular arms were bare, save for leather gauntlets he wore on each wrist, and a strange looking band circling one forearm. A long blade hung at his side, and the handles of several others extended from his belt and his boots. His hair was brown, short and finger combed, and his jaw was covered in several days worth of growth.
Tomas stepped forward. "Good morning, traveller. How can we help you today?"
The newcomer didn't answer. Instead he slowly shifted his attention away from Tomas, to her.
Trapped beneath his direct stare, she couldn't catch a full breath, and she couldn’t look away.
His eyes were such an amazing shade—a warring blue grey. For a moment, she thought she saw surprise in their depths, but whatever emotion had been there died, leaving her struggling to understand her reaction to the man. He continued to stare at her as though reading her broken mind.
When Tomas moved, she jumped, but the traveller didn’t even react. She had a sense that even though he looked only at her, he knew exactly what and who was in every inch of space around him.
“Is there something you need?” Tomas asked.
"Supplies," the traveller answered, his voice deep and his tone clipped.
"Of course," Tomas replied with a smile, but his eyes were wary. Tomas' attention shifted from the shelves, to the traveller, to her, then back to the traveller again. "We have many items. What exactly are you looking for?"
"Rope," the traveller said, still refusing to break eye contact with her.
Tomas stepped between them. "We have several different styles of rope."
She knew Tomas was trying to block her view of the newcomer, but the traveller was too tall. Yet she couldn’t stop herself from standing up from her stool just so she wouldn’t lose eye contact. She was hypnotized—trapped—and unwilling to accept Tomas’ attempts to get in the way.
"Woven thread," Tomas was saying. "Cawls-hide, light rope for mending packs, heavy rope for binding..."
"Heavy," the man answered, his gaze unwavering as he continued to study her over Tomas' head. "Six arms length."
When Tomas didn't move the traveller finally shifted his attention away from her. "That’s all,” he said, towering over the shopkeeper.
Without his gaze to hold her up, she felt as though a string had been cut, sending he dropping back down onto her stool.
Tomas slid out from beneath the man's shadow and hurried to the back of the room to collect the rope.
In a single stride the traveller closed the distance to the counter. Despite her earlier fascination, she couldn't stop herself from scrambling off the stool and backing away. The space behind the counter was narrow, so she barely made it a few inches before bumped into the shelves at her back.
Even with the width of the counter space separating them, she couldn't shake the feeling that this was a very, very dangerous man. Yet at the same time, the feeling also gave her pause. With every other man she met today she'd felt nothing. No emotion. No reaction. No fear.
But with this man…
She lifted her hand to the side of her neck. Beneath the press of her cool fingers, her own heart beat a hurried rhythm.
Whoever the traveller was, he was the first person she’d met who made her feel something.
His eyes lowered, and she followed the direction, catching sight of her doodles sticking out from beneath the edge of the sums pad. Repeated sketches of the pointed peak with the tiny circle floating above.
Panic jerked through her limbs to be caught with the picture. She snatched the small piece of paper and stuffed it quickly into a pocket in her skirt before he said something Tomas might overhear.
The traveller's expression remained closed off as though he wasn’t even bothered by her reaction.
When the door at the back of the room banged open, she wasn't sure who was more surprised. Tomas, who nearly dropped the rope he was bringing forward, she herself, who jerked with a gasp, or Maron, who wasn't sure why everyone was standing about staring at each other in shocked silence.
The traveller didn’t even flinch.
At the sight of the newcomer, Maron frowned, unsure of how to juggle the bowl of soup and his rifle. His arms bobbled and he looked to Tomas for instruction.
Tomas stepped forward and slapped a coil of corded yellow rope onto the counter. "Six arms length.”
The traveller didn’t answer.
“Will there be anything else?" Tomas asked, puffing out his chest. He clearly felt braver now that Maron had returned.
“No,” the traveller answered, watching as Maron wedged his heavy girth in behind the counter.
Maron sidestepped until he was standing at her side. He reached over and clunked the bowl of soup onto the counter in front of her. "Your soup, Calara" he announced then placed both his hands on the rifle and glared at the newcomer.
The scent of the soup assaulted her nose. She swallowed quickly, feeling her stomach turn at the thought of having to drink it once again.
The traveller's nostrils flared. He glanced down at the bowl, then back up to her face. This time his attention was centered on her temple.
She nervously touched her bruised forehead, fluffing her bangs down to cover the injured area.
After a tense pause, the traveller reached into his pocket.
Maron stiffened, and Tomas took a step back.
Without reacting to Maron's bluster, the man slapped several coins on the counter. She reached for them, but Thomas smacked his hand over them first. "Thank you," he said briskly, shoving the rope closer. "Have a good day."
Without a word, the traveller picked up the coil of rope and backed towards the door. He gave her one last glance, then disappeared into the street.
Watching the strength of his gait as he strode across the village square, she had a horrible feeling twisting through the pit of her stomach that she'd just missed something very, very important.
But she had no idea what it was.