The Tauros bucked its head excitedly, anxious for water and rest. His three tails smacked flies away in annoyance and his mane shook out dirt that had been resting there for days.
“You should take this, and buy yourself some warm clothes,” Dane told her as he handed her decently large pouch of coins. “I’ll lodge Tauros and take care of the rest, just meet me back here at mid-afternoon.” And without waiting for her response, he parted from her, heading east of the city, and away from the shore where the stables resided.
She watched him go for a moment, but then, clutching the pouch before placing it into her shoulder bag, she walked directly into the center of the city.
This was the most populated area in this part of the world, where mountains and mountain ranges prospered as they owned the land. A city large enough to be a trading port for those who decided to brave the terrain and work their way through the mountains, as well as those who came by ship across Iternadi Lake. The large wooden buildings that resided in the center of town were those that were either full of goods, or full of fish. It most resembled a large supermarket in a sense.
The buildings got smaller the farther they spread out from the center, each being a private business of things like butchers and weavers, but most were simple homes, looking only slightly different from the rest as nearly everything was made of wood. It made sense, however, considering the town was surrounded by forests, relishing in the clear atmosphere. Apart from the fish industry, lumber is what kept the city thriving.
The girl walked patiently into town with her Umbreon in tow, each enjoying the scenery and looking for things she could purchase that they might need before her next visit. The weekend brought several visitors into the city; those that lived nearby and need to stock up on food and supplies, as well as those who lived in the city themselves, anxious to sell the things they no longer needed.
She walked further and further into the center, as the buildings got closer and closer together and more people gathered in the tightly packed streets to get first pick at whatever new merchandise each store had to offer. But then, a certain building caught her eye, one that was broken and ravaged by the weather, as well as deserted to any living thing that would be absurd enough to wish to live inside of it. The windows that had once been flawless glass were cracked and broken, waiting the day that they would be replaced. The door was sealed shut with two wooden planks, as if its purpose was to keep thieves from entering and stealing what was absolutely nothing inside.
But to Rila, the broken building meant something quite different. And at the sight of it, another painful memory flashed through her mind, as only the ones she least wished to remember had…
Something about today made the young man spend an extra amount in the shower behind the outhouse. The water that had turned cold minutes ago splashed over his body as he was extra greedy with the soap he lathered his body with.
His heartbeat was much faster than normal, pounding inside his chest, aching for the moment when all of its built up tension could be released. He rinsed his body beneath the shower head a third and final time before stepping out finally, and returning to his home with a damp, and semi-purposeful cloth around his waist.
He stood in front of the cracked mirror once he had finally dressed in the nicest clothes he owned, being the only pair of pants he hadn’t ripped, and a button up tee-shirt his mother had gotten him for Christmas the year before.
He tilted his head in dissatisfaction at his reflection and attempted to run a come through his shaggy hair. For a moment, it stayed in place, but once he moved his head in any direction, the hold broke and his hair once again resumed the position it always had, regardless of his efforts.
Giving up, he decided he looked as good as he was going to get, and sighed as he walked out of the door and down the cobblestone street to the house he had visited more than his own.
Pleasant black smoke puffed from the chimney as he knocked nervously on the front door. A single window placed conveniently on the right hand side of it held the figure of an old woman peeking through the curtains before the door opened for him to enter.
“Why, hello André,” the old woman screeched in her raspy and fading voice. She smiled at him for a moment, causing her already wrinkled skin to wrinkle twice as much as it already was. “Would you like to come in?”
“No…” he said, his voice tense, but not in a way that would come of rude. “Is-is Rila around?”
“Yes she is,” she chuckled. “I told her you were here a moment ago, she should be down shortly.”
And as though her sentence was a cue, Rila appeared at the top of the staircase in front of the door. Her auburn hair as vivid as always, draping over her shoulders as it always had whenever he saw her, and the light always seemed to hit it just perfectly so as to make it shine ever so slightly. Her legs were hidden behind the dull grey dress she wore that went down to just below her knee caps, which also had no arms or sleeveless and had an apron tied around its waist.
Her cloth slippers made very little noise as she descended down the stairs, and she only stopped when she was just a few inches in front of him.
“Well, don’t we smell lovely today?” she giggled and smiled up at him, curious to see him blush instead of laugh as well. “Is there something you needed, André? You seemed stressed…”
She tried to flatten out her dress as she spoke to him and waited his reply, slightly embarrassed of the wrinkles and cooking stains on her apron.
“Would you come for a walk with me?” the boy managed to say as he couldn’t hide his nervousness no matter how hard he tried.
“I- sure, I don’t see why not,” she smiled at him, both surprised and confused to why he was acting so strangely. “Would that be okay, grandma?”
“Sure dear, I’ll finish supper and have it ready for you when you return.” A slight smirk appeared across her face as though she had already known what was going to happen. “I’ll take this then.” She swiftly loosened the tie of the apron around Rila’s waist and fastened it around herself instead. “Off you two, and please have her back before dark, André.”
He nodded courteously, then took her granddaughter by the hand and led her out of the door.
“What is going on, André? You’re acting as though you’re preparing to tell me that you are suffering from a terminal illness,” she cast him a suspicious glance from the corner of her eye, and then glanced again at her hand that still remained in his.
“There’s something I want to show you,” was all he said as he continued to lead her down the road.
It was the time of day right before the sun began to set; that early evening when the light was dimmer than it was throughout the day, but the colors in the sky had not yet begun to change. Grim shadows found their way in between the crevices of buildings and behind objects and areas that hid from the sun, but something seemed different about today. Something changed the dusk from an eerie atmosphere into something slightly romantic, and Rila continued to hold his hand eagerly as they rounded the corner at the end of the road, and the place that André was taking her came into view.
There, in the very corner of the center of the city, a tiny house stood barren, and completely vacant. The roof was caved in and had a hole in the side, and the wood surrounding it was old and decayed; even with the lack of sunlight, the house revealed several flaws, and Rila wondered, half amused, why anyone would ever want to live there.
“Ah,” she said finally. “You’ve found us a new clubhouse. Or is it haunted and there is rumored to be buried treasure inside?” she teased.
The two of them had gone on many make believe adventures when they both were younger, each being the other’s only friend. And growing up, friendship had evolved into something else, something more than that than either of them could describe. Neither of them had ever tried to describe what they were, but secretly they each knew exactly what it was: love.
André smiled slightly at her comment, though half embarrassed and worried as well. “No. not quite,” he finally managed to say. “I bought this house yesterday.”
Rila was taken a back for a moment, unsure of what to say, and a bit ashamed that she had made fun of it just before. “Why?” was all her voice allowed her to say, as her mind was lost for words.
“Well, I was going to fix it up…and it was all I could afford with the money I saved.”
“But what about your uncle?”
“He’ll be fine without me, I’m sure he’s been aching to have a house to himself and my aunt for ages. Besides…I…”
His voice seemed to give out, and his heart beat faster than ever as the moment he had been preparing for came unexpectedly. He turned her to face him, and took both of her hands in his. And after a few moments of silence, he finally managed to speak once more.
“I can do the work. I can fix it up to be the best looking house in the city. And with my job at the butcher’s as well as the lumber yard I’ll be making enough to support the both of us and…” he realized he was rambling, and a slight redness rushed over his face.
Rila simply stared deep into his eyes, as her own began to well with the kind of tears that a person would get only in a moment of complete happiness. Realization was rushing over her, and her heart skipped a beat as his body dropped to his knee.
“Will you marry me?” Something inside of him seemed to burst through his anxiety and he spoke calmly, and sure of himself as though he had never been scared before this moment. “I-I don’t have a ring…but I have my heart, and I want you to have it.”
She managed to raise a hand to her face and hide the smile that was forming beneath it. She had never been so sure of anything in her life when she told him yes and he stood back up to kiss her.
The memory stabbed into her heart like a dull blade, and she found herself in tears as she ran away. Her legs seemed to move on their own as she ran to get away from you used to be the best place to her in the world.
Umbreon sprinted after her, galloping at her heels as she ran until her body wouldn’t let her anymore, and she collapsed to her knees beside an aged building. Her hands flew to her face and she sobbed into them, salty tears streaming down her face farther than they ever had before. And during all of this, Umbreon had found his way beside her, and nuzzled her shoulder while he peered up at her with worried eyes.
“Excuse me?” a voice called from inside the building that Rila had happened to be crying beside of, and she hadn’t realized the door was wide open until just then. “Would you mind coming inside, dear? It’s not very good for service if people see a young lady crying outside my shop.”
Rila tried to wipe the wetness from her face as quick as she could in hopes to avoid looking as though she had been in tears; though, it was a bit obvious that the elderly woman who had called to her already knew.
She slowly got to her feet, wrapping her arms around the Umbreon resting against her, and carried it into what seemed to be the woman’s home.
It took her a moment before her eyes adjusted to the dimness of the room in comparison to the blinding light that the sun provided outside, but in moments her vision cleared and she saw a stereotypical old woman’s home.
There were random gadgets and decorations strong everywhere; something an older person would love to see, but cluttered and tacky to a younger person at the same time. A few old chairs led to a crowded table at the far edge of the room, and random plants were hanging around the ceiling, some alive and blooming with flowers, while others dead, and rotting away.
“Come, sit down dear, let’s have a look at you.” The old woman gestured toward the seat across from her.
Rila cautiously walked over to her, watching her age in years before her eyes. The closer she got to her, the older the woman seemed to be. Rila clutched the Umbreon to her chest, as though trying to protect it from something she didn’t even know. The old woman was clearly not able to cause any more harm than a wisp of bad breath.
“Frightened, dear? I assure you there is no reason to be,” she croaked, but sweetly, if a croaking voice like hers could ever be considered sweet. “Don’t be afraid, have a seat, girl.” She gestured once more to the seat across from her and closest to Rila.
Feeling slightly comforted, Rila sat down and managed to really get a good look at the woman for the first time.
Her white hair was pulled back into a tight bun, one that seemed to help her lined face seemed smoother than it already was, and something about her eyebrows seemed to be transparent, as though you could see them, but they weren’t actually there. Her neckline was covered by some sort of quilt-turned dress, as though she had decided one day to turn her blanket into an outfit. But her eyes, they were the most striking of all…instead of a black pupil with a colored iris, they were entirely glazed over with a white milkey substance that hid everything that they once were.
“You’re…you’re blind…” Rila said, unintentionally out loud.
“I am, but thank you for reminding me, I had forgotten that the blankness I see around me was actually blindness and not someone pulling a cheap trick and turning out the lights.” She smiled at the young girl across from her who was blushing from embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”
“Haha, it is fine, dear. I have been blind for long enough to not be offended when someone tells me I am.”
The bluntness of the woman took Rila by surprise, and she sat there, simply, wondering what to say. But fortunately for her, the woman spoke for her.
“May I see your hand?”
“My hand?” Rila asked, surprised at the unusual request.
“Yes, that thing with appendages attached to your wrist?”
Rila laughed shortly before reaching her arm across the table, not seeing a reason to deny the woman what she asked. The Umbreon in her lap tilted his head curiously as he gazed at the elder who took Rila’s hand in one of hers, and began feeling around it with the other.
“Ah,” came a cackled sigh from the owner of the shop as she traced the lines on Rila’s palm with her fingers. “Your heart.”
Rila had no idea what she was getting at, and simply asked, “What about it?”
A wave of shock rippled down Rila’s spine, unsure if the woman seriously had knowledge of this, or if she had just taken a wild guess. Either outcome seemed too farfetched to be untrue. And so, suddenly, and as though she had been poked with a needle, she jerked her hand away. “I…I’m sorry.”
“I understand quite well, dear. I have hit an uncomfortable nerve it seems,” she waited for a few minutes for Rila to respond, but when she didn’t, she continued, “It is hard to escape from something that is always in your shadow, but there comes a time when one must look to the future, and not the past.”
A lump appeared in Rila’s throat, begging her to stop holding back what had come to her face so many times before. But she fought it, and with a trembling chin, she said nothing to the woman and simply watched her stand up and go to a cabinet on the far wall to retrieve something inside of it.
The old woman, came limping back to her, and held up a transparent stone on a silver chain.
“I think you should have this,” she said. “My mother gave it to me when I was a young girl; it’s supposed to be made from the jewel of a Staryu.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly…” Rila said to her, waving her away with a hand that the woman could not see.
“I insist.” The elder did not wait for her to speak this time, but placed the chain over her head until it rested softly on her neck.
Umbreon hopped from his trainer’s lap and waited patiently beside her on the floor as the aged woman finally let go of the amulet and let it rest against Rila’s body. And the moment it fell upon her, the clear stone seemed to ripple with color until it settled on a deep sapphire color that gleamed once before it faded silently into something less remarkable.
“So? What color has it chosen?”
Rila looked down at her new pendant before hiding it beneath her shirt. “Blue.”
“Ah, I assumed as much.” The old woman then returned to her seat behind the table. “As long as that necklace has been in my possession, I have come to see it be four colors. Blue, as it is now, is supposed to represent loss, black, which represents anger, red, being the most obvious, love, and white, the rarest color of them all, being peace. People mistake it for some sort of mood ring, but it is not. The jewel will only change colors when the feelings in your heart have changed. It does not tell your mood, it tells you what your heart already knows.”
Rila sat for a moment, listening to her speak, and unable to construct a response worth speaking. “Thank you…” was all she managed to say before wincing and realizing how pathetic it sounded.
“You are welcome, my dear. But I think now is around the time you should be on your way. My bed is calling me for rest, and I assume you have places to be before nightfall.”
Before Rila could protest, the woman stood up, and wandered from the room towards the back of here home, where her bedroom was more than likely located. And, feeling awkward that she was now in a stranger’s home unsupervised, she stood and left with Umbreon at her heels.
The rest of the day she spent walking to random shops and purchasing warm items like long johns and sweaters as well as a pair of heavy boots and a thick jacket. She also managed to find some gloves, ear muffs and a scarf as well as meet Dane at the edge of the city just a few minutes behind schedule.
“You’re late,” was his welcome to her as he saw her approach. The wagon that had been empty when they arrived was now full and wrapped with a tarp. Rila pitied the bull who would now have to pull such a heavy load, but she assumed this was not his first time performing the task.
She placed her bag of clothing upon the wagon as well, before saying, “Only by a few minutes. I…got caught up with a few things.”
Dane arched a suspicious eyebrow at her, but didn’t bother to question her; he simply took Tauros by the reigns and began to lead him back up the path toward the cabin.