Elly hated her. There was no two ways about it. She didn't even try to hide it. Within a day of Logan's visit, Idira recovered enough to get up and wander into the kitchen. Ryback put her to work peeling potatoes, and for the next three days as she gained her strength back, she stayed in the kitchen and kept her head down, doing little undemanding jobs to earn her keep; turning the spit over the fire, washing dishes, polishing copper pans, and peeling an endless supply of vegetables.
Despite the monotony of her labour, keeping busy soothed her, distracting her from the infuriatingly tiny glimpses of her previous life which randomly surfaced, ephemeral as soap bubbles, only to disappear as quickly as they arrived, leaving her agitated and grieving though she could not say for what or whom.
Elly spent as little time as possible in the kitchen, but when she did come in out of necessity it always felt like the temperature dropped to an icy chill, even though the cook fire blazed as hot as ever.
Idira picked up a potato and started peeling it, thinking of Elly's last visit to the kitchen. She had talked about Idira as though she wasn't sitting right there, making demeaning comments about the shabbiness of Idira's dress until Ryback told her to shut up. And then, as though thinking about her nemesis had summoned her, Elly's quick tread moved down the steps into the kitchen. Idira hunched down, trying to make herself as small as possible.
Elly swept in, her face a little flushed and her hair falling loose from its pins. She slapped her empty tray onto the big table in the middle of the kitchen, it clattered against the wood, loud, shattering the kitchen's calm. Her hands on her hips, she swaggered to where Idira sat working through her pile of potatoes.
'Hey, Purple,' Elly said from behind her, scornful. 'My customers are complaining their roast vegetables still have peel on them, I told them you'd come out to apologise in person.' Idira could feel Elly's hateful gaze on her, boring a hole into the back of her head.
'Leave her alone,' Ryback cut in, as he sectioned a side of venison. 'She peels them just fine, and well you know it.'
'Shut up, Ryback,' Elly snapped, 'you're not the boss of me Maegan is, and she said Idira has to come out.'
'Yeah probably cause you made a big scene,' Ryback shot back, slamming the butcher knife into the table. He picked up a cloth and wiped his hands. 'Didn't you hear what Logan said? She's been through a lot, and now you wanna kick a dog when it's down?'
'Screw Logan,' Elly said, bitterness oozing from her. 'This ain't no charity organisation, Maegan says either she does the work right or she's out.'
'It's alright,' Idira said to Ryback, uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was going. She'd promised Logan she would do her best to fit in at The Pig and Whistle and earn her keep until either she found her memories or he had enough saved up to buy a place for them to live. 'I'll go. I must have made a mistake.'
'See,' Elly smirked, triumphant. 'Come on, Purple, move it.' Impatient, she pushed Idira up the stairs, making her trip on the hem of her dress so she stumbled on the last step.
'Watch yourself there,' Elly said as she came up behind, all smiles for the patrons, 'the steps are a little uneven. You'll get the hang of it soon enough with all the tables you'll be clearing.'
'Tables?' Idira asked, confused. 'I thought I was coming to—'
'Well, don't just stand there blabbering like a freak,' Elly interrupted, smiling and dimpling, making a show of herself in front of the men eyeing her as she handed Idira an enormous tray from behind the bar. She pointed at a table surrounded by four young soldiers. New recruits by the look of their youthful, unscarred faces—full drunk, singing and carousing, their table overflowing with empty tankards and platters. A shove, a little rough, landed against the small of Idira's back, sending her stumbling into one of the grizzled men by the bar. He glowered and shoved her back with a curse before downing his shot.
'Go on, then,' Elly simpered, looking as harmless as a butterfly. 'Get to work, and don't forget to wipe the table down. Maegan don't like the tables getting all sticky.' A wet dishrag, cold and sour and smelling of old ale, slapped against the side of Idira's head.
'Oops!' Elly giggled, rolling her eyes at her audience. Some of the men chuckled, lifting their shot glasses to her, indulgent. 'Thought you saw that coming. Silly me.'
Wiping her sleeve against the foul smell coming from her cheek, Idira knelt and picked up the stinking rag, humiliated by the sniggers of the men at the bar. She edged her way toward the group of recruits, uneasy. None of them looked to be more than nineteen. Just boys, really, she reassured herself. She could handle them. She eased her way between them, surreptitious, lifting the crockery and tankards away and loading them onto the tray sitting on the empty table beside them when one of them grabbed her wrist and yanked her towards him.
'Wouldja look at that!' he bellowed, his breath hot in her face, 'Elly was right. Lookit them purple eyes. A proper freak.'
The others leaned forward, their movements clumsy and exaggerated by the drink. One of them knocked over a half-full tankard, and stale ale spread across the table, pungent. They laughed, falling over themselves trying to get out of the way of the drips sliding over the table's edge. Their attention fully diverted, they forgot about her.
'Ge' us a kiss,' her captor demanded, yanking her closer. She tried to pull back, but he held her fast in his grip, his strength surprising her. 'I wanna see what it's like to kiss a freak.' His face loomed in front of hers, all crooked yellow teeth and red, spotty skin. He stuck his tongue out, its surface coated with a thick, greenish fuzz, and licked his fat, moist lips. Idira gagged and closed her eyes, pressing her lips tight together, enduring the waves of nausea washing over her at the stink of him: stale sweat and urine, booze, and something else: a powerful stench of stinky cheese coming from the direction of his groin. Despite the incongruity of the timing, a sudden memory, visceral, flickered to life in her mind's eye; of a man beaten up, laying almost naked in a dimly-lit wine cellar, a leather tunic covering his groin, the same smell of stinky cheese coming from him. She lunged after the memory, grasping after its fading tendrils, desperate to hold on to it, but as quick as it came, it was gone, vanishing just like the ones which had come before, leaving behind nothing more than a grinding, nameless residue of grief.
'That'll be enough, lad.'
A strong hand grasped her shoulder, pulling her back from the vile stench of the boy's breath. Ryback moved between them, still holding his massive butcher knife, not like a weapon, just in his hand as though he hadn't had time to set it aside.
'How about another jug of ale, boys?' He didn't wait for them to answer, he glanced back at Idira, his face might have been impassive, but his eyes were hard and flinty. 'Go fetch us a jug would you?'
She scurried away, relief cascading through her as she ran behind the bar to fetch the ale, ignoring the hateful looks Elly shot at her whenever her tormenter thought no one was looking. Ryback took the ale and set it on the table. He leaned down close to the boy's face, though how he could stand the smell of him, Idira couldn't guess. 'This one's on the house,' he said, in a voice that brooked no argument, 'then it's time to be heading on back to your barracks.'
Taking Idira by the elbow, he steered her back down the steps into the kitchen, led her to her stool, and sat her in front of the pile of unpeeled potatoes.
'You're behind on the vegetables,' he said, matter-of-fact. Without saying another word, he went to the other side of the table, lifted his big, blocky knife and carried on butchering the venison, quiet, precise, angry.