Robbie carried over the holdall and sat down rather slowly opposite Louise.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Didn’t have the foggiest what he was going on about, but he seems to think we’re foreigners.’
‘Well we are,’ said Louise, ‘and as long as he doesn’t think we are from another planet…’
Robbie shook his head, ‘No. Nothing like that. We’re Shaulan apparently.’
‘Hence that boy’s insult?’
‘We’re all friends now it seems.’
‘Even better,’ she said.
‘Yeah, but also did you hear the bit about Digbone’s daughter?’
Louise nodded toward the portrait, ‘She’s the ruler of this country.’
‘Okay, but don’t you think Morgan should have let us know?’
‘You can’t expect him to have told us everything about the place.’
Robbie looked at Louise askance, ‘It’s hardly an unimportant detail.’
‘That’s probably precisely what it is - something that we don’t need to know to complete our quest for the black prism.’
‘Oh, I’m not so sure, Lou. There’s something fishy about it.’
‘Listen,’ said Louise, ‘Morgan Digbone can’t travel here because he’s ill. He’s told you that much. And everything else has gone pretty much to plan hasn’t it, love?’ She reached across the table and gently placed her right hand on Robbie’s.
Robbie gazed at the long fingers wrapped around his broad square fist, enjoying the comfort and reassurance of her touch. ‘The café guy thinks we’re married,’ he said incredulously.
Louise gave Robbie a cool calculating look, ‘It might be an opportunity, love.’
‘It would be good cover – I mean you can hardly let me stay in a room of my own - now can you?’
‘Well…I er…I er…,’ said Robbie, not knowing quite what to make of her. She was looking at him intensely now, a strange light in her china blue eyes, the kind of yearning he had seen, but had disbelieved, in the parlour of Wood Road on his birthday, when she had sat close and invited him to open her card in which she had put the unexpectedly large sum of two pounds. It could only be innocent, but either way he felt both astounded and inadequate. ‘You serious?’
‘Yes, entirely,’ she said primly.
He swallowed hard, glancing anxiously to the slim back of Hogg turning the bacon in the frying pan.
‘Robbie, I wouldn’t feel safe without you by my side,’ she said, smiling reassuringly.
She squeezed his hand tight and gazed earnestly into his eyes, ‘Besides, we’d attract unwanted attention if we asked for separate rooms.’
Her pale cheeks were beginning to gently colour, and Robbie took this to be embarrassment associated with the touchy side of her perfectly reasonable request. Besides, she’d never to be mad enough to let anything happen between them, even more so after the awful hash he’d made of the kiss yesterday. There was nothing unusual about her wanting to room with a friend in this strange place, ‘Okay then.’
‘Ahem – he’s coming,’ she said, switching her eyes toward the bar servery and quickly back to Robbie.
As Hogg approached with a platter, on which much bacon was crammed between slices of bread as thick as doorstops, Louise let her hand linger on Robbie’s. However, she kept her left hand under the table and, since this was hardly appropriate to receiving their order, Robbie got the strong impression she was doing it deliberately. ‘Ah,’ she said, greeting Hogg, who smiled ruefully at the locked hands that were preventing him setting the tray down. Louise wasn’t in a hurry, and let her eyes feast greedily for a moment on the food. ‘Those sandwiches look delicious,’ she said.
‘Well you’ve certainly brought a fine day with you,’ said Hogg setting down the tray on the next table. By way of confirming the weather, he stood facing the window and gazed out into the square, which was growing busier by the minute as the bright morning progressed.
‘It’s a beautiful late autumn day,’ said Louise.
‘Ye-ess,’ said Hogg, giving her his lopsided smile, ‘’ave you been married long, my dear?’
‘Only a few weeks – we are on our honeymoon.’
Robbie cleared his throat.
‘As you’ve only jus’ arrived, ’spect you’ll be looking for somewhere to stay?’
‘Why, yes – can you recommend anywhere?’ she said.
‘Depends on what you wan’ to pay.’
‘Not very much,’ Robbie jumped in, adding hastily, ‘we’ve not got a lot of money, that is – are there any lodging houses?’
Hogg tilted his head to one side, his cunning grey eyes twinkling at Louise, ‘Oh, some of those can be a bit rough – now Dave at the Plough is quite reasonable.’
‘Perhaps we could have a look later, Robbie?’
Louise ate like a horse, ravenous, giggling, her eyes always on Robbie’s, pushing the crumbs that stuck to her lips into her mouth, shrugging her shoulders stiffly, finger on her lips as she giggled some more again.
For his part, Robbie held his sandwich firmly, unable to sink his incisors into the bread and meat. His heart raced. He felt faint, and at the same time elated, as if something terrific and powerful, something uncontrollable, was going to happen. It was like one of his fires kindling towards the point where it had its own wild destructive life beyond his control. ‘Eat up, darling,’ she said.
‘I can’t, Lou…I’m not hungry no more.’
‘You need to keep body and soul together.’
‘Can’t,’ he gasped. ‘I’ll have a scone after.’
‘Pass it over here,’ she said, nodding to the sandwich gripped between his fingers, ‘We shouldn’t waste it.’
He gave it to her. Her hand brushing his had an electric tingle. He gawped at her feeding on the bacon and bread and grease. He wanted to stay in this mad state for ever, teetering on the very edge of the abyss. He was scared after his plunge there’d be the rocky bottom.
Hogg was on his way again with a tray of scones, pats of butter and a pewter pot of tea with two cups. Louise’s left hand darted under the rim of the table. Now Robbie knew something was going on.
‘With folk leaving town after the celebrations, should imagine Dave’ll be able to put you up,’ said Hogg, setting down the tray and taking up the one on which he had delivered the sandwiches, ‘jus’ cut across to the west side of the square and out into…Deneb Alley….’ Opposite the window a cart had drawn up. A couple of strong men jumped down, and immediately began decanting oak wine barrels, rolling them to a pitch that was being erected nearby. Hogg looked toward the men curiously, with a pained expression of sympathy on his face, ‘Terrible business,’ he said under his breath, then brightening immediately before his young guests, whose recent arrival meant they could have no inkling of what was on his mind, continued with his directions, ‘Yes, follow through Deneb alley, turn lef’ into Tarazed Road, carry on until you come to a crossroads, then turn righ’ into Altair Street, go straigh’ ahead over the next intersection with Aquila Road and into Delphinus Street. The Plough’s about halfway down there on the lef’. Can’t miss it.’
‘’Sounds straightforward enough,’ said Louise smiling.
But Robbie detected there was something awkward about her smile, as if she was unsettled by the continuing presence of Hogg.
‘It’s very reasonable,’ said the café owner.
‘I’m sure it is,’ said Louise tersely.
‘Can I get you anythin’ else, Missis…’
‘No, no, that’ll be all.’
Hogg took the hint and beat a retreat to his servery.
‘What’s got into you?’ said Robbie.
‘Cut me a scone, please,’ she said.
‘Have you lost your hands?’ said Robbie, slicing through a scone. ‘Butter, Madam?’
Louise nodded. ‘I’m going to need a wedding ring,’ she whispered, giving Hogg a sly glance.
‘A what?’ Evasively, Robbie reached for the teapot and, as he did so, found salvation in the slip of yellow paper peeping from under a saucer. He unfolded the bill, ‘I mean…a ring sounds expensive…Lou…’
‘Well, I’m going to need one if I going to be your wife.’
Pretend wife don’t you mean, thought Robbie, keeping his eyes away from her by examining the bill in ridiculous detail.
‘How much is it, love?’
‘They get married young here, Robbie. When we were crossing the square, I saw a girl a year or so younger than me wearing a ring on her wedding finger.’
‘We have to be careful with the cash, Lou.’ The hunger had returned and he decided to eat his scone.
‘All the money in the world will do us no good if our cover is blown.’
‘I don’t see why being married makes us any less suspicious?’
‘Robbie,’ said Louise, her eyes wide, ‘honeymoon couples hardly go about burning down farms.’
‘Huh? Oh, I suppose not.’
‘Besides, I wouldn’t feel comfortable…you know…if you won’t make that little commitment to me.’
Robbie took her in. She was a beauty, a cool beauty with platinum hair shining in the light of the window, all down and arrayed on the shoulders of her cloak. Her cheeks were less coloured now, and his eyes wandered her pale complexion, roving the light smattering of freckles extending from her nose. She leant over and wrapped her long fingers around his hand. Once more he teetered over the trapdoor of her glittering eyes. ‘I’ll...I’ll get you a ring,’ he said, fighting against his heaving breath.
Time stood still while they gazed into each other’s eyes. At length, Robbie started to think they ought to be going. Reluctantly, his eyes drifted away to search the walls for a clock.
‘Don’t worry, darling,’ said Louise, seeing his anxiety return, ‘we’ll be just fine.’
‘There’s no damn clock,’ said Robbie in a low voice, glancing at Hogg, who was standing behind his servery, his head tilted to one side, his craggy face written with his knowing lopsided grin. ‘Come to think of it, there was none in town either.’
‘Maybe they’ve not invented it yet,’ said Louise with a giggle.
Robbie glared at her in horror, ‘You better keep your wristwatch out of sight then.’
‘If they haven’t invented the timepiece – how will they know what it is?’ she said cockily.
‘And there’s you worried about not wearing a ring?’ he snapped.
‘I’ll wear that as a symbol of…our…l…little… arrangement…’
What, to share a room? he thought. He smiled bemusedly, ‘Oh, I’m sorry for biting your head off, Lou.’
She took her hand off his and fiddled a little under the table. ‘There, the watch is in my pocket. What’s the matter now, love?’ she said, as her eyes returned to him. He was staring out the window and, as he did so, all colour seemed to drain from his fresh face.
‘We really ought to be going now,’ said Robbie, hastily producing a few silver coins, which he plonked down on the tray. He pulled the hood up and over his forehead. ‘Cover your head too.’
Louise looked out the window in bewilderment. The wine stall was busy now with trade in full swing. Folk crowded around the pitch, and four people filled skins from the barrels at the rear of the stall, bringing them to the customers waiting three deep at the counter. It was all pretty normal, then again, unlike Robbie, she didn’t recognise one of those serving: a tall girl with a light-brown face and copious dark hair, which flowed in ringlets upon the shoulders of her fine emerald green cloak. Louise reached under the table and squeezed Robbie’s knee, ‘Relax, my darling, nothing’s going to happen, except that we are going to have a good time. We’ll get that black prism and then be off back to Maldervale.’
Robbie nodded feebly.
‘Now then, I saw a jeweller’s stall earlier,’ she said. ‘It’s just over on the west side…but first we’ll need…’
Robbie and Louise's relationship is consumated that evening in an attic bedroom of the Plough Inn. But, Robbie can't come to grips with Louise's feelings for him. He always remains suspicious and thinks their affair will end at any time. Perhaps that's the real reason why he goes off with the enigmatic Jade Finn. We will meet Jade, a central character in this epic fantasy, in the next post. However, she has already featured in this scene. She's the girl on the wine stall, a victim of arson and theft, courtesy of Robbie Higgins.
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