Chapter two

It wasn't long before Roald's visits became more regular. He lived with his mother, not far from their own little town of Bahn. He came to see them twice a week, at which occasion Mara was required to be as polite as was humanly possible. She realized early on that Roald didn't object to the marriage, in all probability because he knew he'd never be able to find one on his own.

Mara decided that this had to change. She cornered him at the stables one day as he stood admiring her father's black stallion, Nightmare.

"Do you like horses?" she asked.

Roald nodded. "I used to go riding all the time, but my mother decided it was too dangerous, and she had my horse sold."

"I myself hate riding," Mara lied, crossing her fingers behind her back. "My father has tried to get me interested, but I'd rather sit outside and sew."

"Which is why your hands are callused," Roald drawled. He smiled at Mara's surprise and added, "Yes, my lady Marania, I've noticed a great deal about you, including that the white horse over there belongs to you."

Obviously, persuading the groom to call off the marriage was not going to be easy, or perhaps even possible. She decided to try again in an attempt to stir up his sympathy.

"I'm afraid it would trouble me deeply to know that anyone wasn't allowed to ride."

He smiled wryly and answered, "But once we're married, Mother will no longer control me, and you and I may go riding as often as you would like."

Mara shuddered at the very thought and promptly decided to set her sights elsewhere, towards Lady Emily.

Her opportunity came when she found her ladyship temporarily ignored by Gabriel, who had rushed off to tend to some matter or other, summoning Mara to keep their guest occupied.

"It's a lovely day, isn't it?" Mara said casually. "Very mild."

Emily shrugged. "It is well enough," she said, "although I personally take great pleasure in the winter."

"Do you enjoy ice-skating, then?"

A look of sheer terror flashed in the lady's eyes. "Oh no, it's far too dangerous. I will not allow myself or my son to fall through thin ice, Lady Marania. Winter is the perfect time to stay inside and get things done - safely. Like a little bit of sewing, for instance."

Mara shrugged. "I myself love ice-skating. I'll not marry a man who won't ice skate! I'll have to find some way of persuading Roald, then, won't I?"

Lady Emily looked appalled at the very idea, then, as if she'd suddenly realized something, she broke into a devious smile. "Well," she sighed, "I suppose he'll be yours to control, won't he? I suppose, then, that if you wish to get him out on the ice, then you will. You're going to be married, Lady Marania, and I'm afraid that there is nothing you can do about it," she added coldly.

Mara frowned. There was only one other person she could turn to, and she winced inwardly at the very thought of confronting her father again. She did, however, because she would not marry that man, no matter what her father said. If she had to, she told him, she would go to the queen, or to a priestess, or to someone who was willing to defend her rights as a woman. Gabriel merely argued that he would find someone to defend his rights as a father who cared about his daughter's future. In the end, his case sounded more likely to win over hers.

Mara sulked for the next three days.

Eventually, she left the confines of her house and headed out into the bustle of town. Her father had told her that a well-known troupe of players had come to town in an attempt to get her out of the house. He didn't have to try very hard - she wouldn't miss one of their performances for the world, especially if it meant getting away from their horrid guests!

The troupe was a small one, called The Queen's Talents. It was made up of two men and one woman. They looked as though they were lacking a body, for they seemed somewhat uncomfortable with such a small number of people. Still, they worked efficiently and their productions were excellently performed. Mara hooted and cheered with the rest of the crowd gathered in the main square.

Long after the troupe had finished and everyone had gone home, Mara still sat on the edge of an old wall, watching them in mild interest. Finally, the woman in the troupe came over and asked, "You looking to join us, milady?"

Mara started. She shook her head and said, "No, I'm just curious to know what it's like to be a player. You know, moving about from town to town, never really having one place to call home."

The woman laughed, a long, low bellow of a laugh. "Milady, the likes of us are home anywhere so long as we've got each other around. The wandering life is no different than your own -"

"Except more exciting," Mara grumbled, interrupting her.

With a shrug the woman said, "I wouldn't know, milady, although I'll take your word for it."

A church bell rang out somewhere in the distance, and Mara sighed regretfully. "I'd better be getting home," she said sadly. "My father will be missing me."

The woman shrugged and turned, but as an afterthought called over her shoulder, "We'll be here until tomorrow, my lady, if it pleases you."

Mara didn't reply. She hiked up her skirts and ran the entire way home, thinking hard about the woman's comment. To join a group of players would be a great adventure indeed. She'd finally be able to see the world beyond the boundaries of her dull, quiet little village. She'd finally be free of everything that had been troubling her at home…

When she arrived back home, Mara was scolded by her father for not having an escort and especially for not telling him where she was going to be. As he lectured, her thoughts turned elsewhere, and she was reminded of why she'd left in the first place.

A person can only stand so much time in an enclosed space. Eventually, the desire to break out of that space can become so overwhelming that it is exactly what a person will do. It's like my life, Mara thought. One day, I'm going to break away from it, from marriage, and from responsibility. One of these days, she thought fondly, I'm going to be my own person.

When her father finally dismissed her, Mara pleaded fatigue and went up to her room. She grabbed a bag and stuffed it full of clothes, a miniature painting of her mother, and some of her jewellery, which she might be able to sell or trade later on. She took up some paper and ink and wrote a lengthy letter to her father explaining that although she loved him dearly, she wasn't going to stand by and let him live her life for her. She wasn't that kind of person, and it was time that he realized that.

People marry, she wrote, for two reasons: Happiness and money. You're marrying me for the latter, whether you believe it or not. Perhaps Roald would make a good provider - I suppose I will never find out. You are my father, not my lord, and it is time for you to abandon the old ways.

A sad sigh erupted from her lips as she gazed out the window at the midnight stars above her. Mara didn't think it was at all the right thing to be leaving like this, and several times she almost changed her mind about leaving. But on the verge of tearing up her letter, she would stop, smooth it out, and return to waiting for everyone else to go to sleep. Finally, she told herself firmly that this was what she had to do. She left the note on her pillow, in an envelope marked Father, and didn't touch it again.

Just after midnight, after Michael had made his nightly trip to the kitchen, Mara donned her cloak and tiptoed through the silent corridors of her house and out into the night.

The chill night air caressed her skin and she drank in this freshness with an exhilarating imagining of what was to come. Mara took one last, long look at the ominous stone walls of her home before turning on her heel and fleeing down the road.

The troupe wasn't far away. They'd spent their earnings in the best inn in town. She found them in the bar, all clustered around a small table, laughing, talking and drinking. They seemed oblivious to the world around them for the moment. All that existed for them was the day. There were no worries about tomorrow, and they hardly seemed to know the events of yesterday.

Mara took a deep breath and approached them. The bar was quite full for such a late hour, she noticed, and the air was heavy with smoke.

"Excuse me," she said quietly.

They all looked up at her, bewildered. A gleam of recognition crossed the woman's eyes and she said, "Ah, hello again, milady! Isn't it a bit late to be out strolling?"

"It's late to be drinking," Mara replied.

The woman's skin was a deep shade of brown, with matching eyes that lit up with her smile and short, curly black hair. She was a brawny figure, with strong arms and broad shoulders. She wore large hoops from her ears and bangles on her wrists, and a heavy sword hung by her side.

She laughed and turned back to her companions. "This is her ladyship, lads. The one I was telling you about earlier."

The two men looked up at Mara and smiled. The first was a man in his early sixties, Mara guessed, but he somehow appeared older. He was a long and lanky thing, with grey stubble on his chin and glowing blue eyes. His long, slender fingers tapped serenely on the tabletop. He smiled at her, although he seemed entirely focused on something else.

The second man was younger. He looked to be about Tim's age, with an easy smile and stocky build. His black hair was messy, but it didn't look as though it would have suited him for it to be any other way. He was dressed in a loose shirt and breeches, and his grey eyes sparkled as he nodded politely to her.

"What can we be doing for you, milady?" the woman asked her.

Mara had planned this all out. She'd imagined coming across the group in the middle of rehearsing one of their plays. She'd watch them for a while, then clap, and when they turned she'd make her glorious entrance into their lives. They'd spend their time dancing, laughing, and telling stories around the campfire. Life would be perfect.

It had never occurred to her that the troupe was made up of ordinary human beings, who drank, spent their time at inns, and tried as hard as they could to make it to the life of luxury.

"Speak up, girl," the woman said. "We don't bite, you know."

Mara gathered herself up and declared sheepishly, "I was wondering if you needed an extra pair of hands. It looked to me today like you were short a person."

The woman looked to have taken offence at this, and Mara was quickly stringing together a flimsy apology in her head when the woman laughed. "That obvious, huh? You hear that, boys? I told you we should have skipped this town, what with Emric being gone, and all." She seemed somewhat angry at the thought of a missing body.

"A man's got the right to settle down and get married," the older man said wisely.

"Yeah, and we've got the right to tan that particular man's deserting hide!" the woman snapped.

"Come on, Cleo, he didn't desert us," the younger man said calmly, taking a swig of his ale. "We all knew he was itching to get back to - what was her name again? Rosalind? Or was it Rachel? Oh, it doesn't matter. The point is, he's gone, and we could use a good pair of hands." He looked up at Mara. "What skills have you got?"

She shrugged. "I'm not really sure, actually. What are you looking for?"

"Another player, for one. Our plays aren't any good when you've got three people each playing four parts," the woman said matter-of-factly.

"Well, I'm not sure if I'd be a very good player. I've never acted before."

"What special skills have you got, then? Or haven't you got any at all? I'm not letting just any runaway into my troupe, missy, you can be sure of that."

I'm no average runaway, Mara thought irritably. "I'm educated in three languages," she listed automatically, glaring around at the troupe, "as well as in math, geography, and history. I can haggle 'til the end of time and still get my way, and up until three years ago I was being taught swordplay by one of our guards, but my father found out and had him dismissed. I'm a competant seamstress, I don't tire easily and I'm the fastest rider I know. I don't know what it is that you would expect of me, but I can promise to do it without complaint and to the best of my abilities."

She stopped, took a much-needed breath of air, and waited for them to say something. "You are a runaway, aren't you?" Cleo asked, crossing her arms. "I don't particularly like runaways. Their families starts looking for them, and things can get too messy for my liking."

"Cleo, you're a runaway yourself, remember?" the older man said with a chuckle. "You act as if you haven't got any family at all."

"As far as I'm concerned, I don't," the woman grumbled.

"Well I'm all for a new member," the younger man said, standing. "Whether she's a runaway or not, we really could use the extra help." He held out his hand to Mara and said, "My name's Flynn. I'm the writer of this troupe. Pleased to meet you."

Mara accepted the offered hand and said, "Marania - Mara."

Flynn pointed at the older gentleman and said, "This here's Horatio, our mage, and you already know Cleo, I expect."

Cleo said, "I suppose I've forgotten my own roots. Didn't think a noble lady was up to a life such as ours."

"I was born a noble lady," Mara said defiantly, "but I certainly am not one at heart."

"Obviously, or you wouldn't be running away from luxury." Horatio smiled at her. "I'm also for you, by the way."

"It's settled, then," Cleo said with a grin. She stood and said to the two men, "Get some sleep, you two. I want to be out of this town by dawn, and hopefully we'll be able to gain some time on Mara's kin before they start searching for her - and believe me, if they're nobles, they'll search." She turned to Mara and added, "You can bunk with me tonight."

"Thank you," Mara said, and followed Cleo upstairs to one of the inn's spacious bedrooms.

"Don't know why they give folk two beds when there's obviously only one of them," Cleo grumbled. "But there you have it."

Mara thanked the woman again, but her thanks were instantly brushed aside.

"I remember what it was like to be in your position. You mind telling me what made you run away?"

"Everything," Mara said as she crawled into bed, not even bothering to change.

"Same here, though I was no bred noble like you. Belonged to a band of gypsies. Training to be an 'Esteemed Elder,' they called it. Equivalent of a priestess, I suppose. My mother was one, just like her mother before her. Couldn't stand it, you know? So I up and left."

Mara yawned. "It's all the rules and constraints," she said sleepily.

Cleo smiled warmly. "You look beat, girl-child. You'd best get some sleep. There's only a couple of hours before dawn, you know."

Mara nodded and drifted into dreams of players dancing around a fire in which she could see her father's furious glare. She smiled in her sleep. Of all the harebrained stunts she'd pulled, his dream-self yelled, this took the cake.

It seemed to her like she'd only just laid down her head before someone started shaking her brusquely awake.

"Rise and shine," Cleo's voice rang in her ears, shocking her out of her dream.

"What time is it?" Mara groaned, throwing her arm across her eyes.

"Just before dawn. Come on, Mara, hurry up. We've got to be out of here early if we're to get ahead of your kin."

That did it. Mara jolted awake and hastened to get ready. It didn't take long. She was dressed in clean clothes and ready to go in ten minutes.

Flynn and Horatio had already paid the innkeeper and were waiting outside with an old mule and a cart loaded to the brim with supplies for their plays and for their lifestyle.

"It's about time," Flynn grumbled.

Mara turned pale. Had he begun to regret allowing her to join them?

"Don't you mind him," Horatio assured her, taking a seat on the edge of the cart. "He's always a grump first thing. Give him an hour or so, and he'll be right as rain."

She smiled and nodded, and Horatio grinned. "You're a quiet one, then," he said.

"No, sir," she said. "I can be right loud when I want to be."

He laughed at this. "Well then, I suppose it's a bit early to be loud, yet. Most people are barely awake. I wouldn't be surprised if we aren't the only ones out and about."

Mara shook her head. "There are people who like to be up early. Plenty in this town, anyways. I'm not one of them, but I don't judge by people's differences."

"Clever girl," Cleo grunted, hauling her bag up onto the cart and then adding Mara's to the pile. "Most nobles wouldn't even say hello to anyone less than themselves."

"I'm not a noble," Mara repeated bluntly. "Never have been. Besides, my mother brought me up to respect everyone, and my father … well, he doesn't matter. Shall we go?"

Horatio, Cleo, and Flynn all exchanged curious glances, but to Mara's relief they didn't pursue the subject any further. Cleo slapped the mule's backside and the cart lurched to a start. She guided the mule with a rope tied around its neck, although it didn't seem to need it. It seemed perfectly content to follow her wherever she wanted to go, as long as they moved slowly enough for its liking. Somehow Mara didn't think the phrase "stubborn as a mule" applied to this particular occasion.

Mara and Flynn walked behind the cart in silence. After a while, she had to ask, "What are you thinking about?"

"Hmm?" he asked. Mara repeated her question. "Oh, nothing much, really."

"You're thinking about something," Mara pointed out. "You wouldn't be staring so fixedly at the cart if you weren't."

He smiled and looked at her. "You're a good reader of people, aren't you?"

She shrugged. "Sometimes."

"I was thinking," he told her, "about the queen."

"The queen?"

He nodded. "You heard me right. She's the most interesting person I've ever had the pleasure to meet, I think."

"Really? What's she like?"

"Well," he said, his eyes screwing up in memory. "She's very beautiful. Her voice sounds like the wind whispering through the leaves, and her eyes are like deep black pools into her soul. She's got a brilliant mind - the mind of a true leader. The first and foremost thing in her life is Druin. After that I guess it's her children. But she never thinks about herself. It makes her a great queen. People come from far and wide just to lay eyes on her, Mara. Just to get a glimpse of her hand. If there's anyone worthy of the Radjans' blessing, it's her."

The Radjans, or Gods, of Druin were commonly referred to as heavenly beings who had nothing better to do than bless good people all day, and punish sinners all night. Mara thought it a load of dung. After all, she'd sinned a great many times during her lifetime, and the worst punishment she'd ever received from the Radjans was a couple of rainy days when she would have given anything to go out. Some kind of punishment indeed, she thought.

They made it out of town just after dawn, as Cleo had wanted. They walked for the rest of the day without stopping. Their pace was an unhurried but steady one, and they were half way to Honoura by nightfall.

"It's not like Honoura's that far away, anyways," Flynn pointed out as they sat around their campfire by the side of the road.

Mara didn't answer. She sat hunched forward on a rock, her elbows on her knees, and her hands clasped tightly in front of her. Her father would have found out she was missing by now. What if he searched all day and all night? Then he'd probably catch up to them and demand that Mara return home. That would be horrible. Not only would Mara be trapped in a marriage with Roald, her father would have her new friends arrested for kidnapping. And she'd plead with him that they had nothing to do with her departure, but knowing how immovable her father was, especially when he was upset, her pleas would only glance off of the surface of his awareness and never actually make it to his comprehension.

"We'll be there by noon tomorrow, I think, if we keep up this pace," Cleo said. "You're doing all right, aren't you, Mara? Mara?"

She jumped. "I'm sorry," she said, "I guess my head was in the clouds."

Cleo smiled. "Well, we all have to wander into our own personal reveries sometimes, don't we? Radjans know Flynn does it at least five times a day."

"Don't forget that I'm the one writing all the plays you lot are performing," Flynn snapped.

The woman laughed and clapped him good-naturedly on the shoulder. "Just joking, Flynn. You know how you're appreciated here!"

"Tell us, what are you working on now?" Horatio asked Flynn.

Flynn shook his head. "Nothing, at the moment. I've run out of ink. We'll have to buy some in Honoura."

"We bought you ink two weeks ago!" Cleo exclaimed, slightly in awe of his ravenous consumption of said ink.

"And I used it all," was his simple reply. Obviously, he didn't deem this as anything unnatural.

"Fine," Cleo sighed. "Remind me and we'll stop at the market to buy you more ink. Now, I'm going to bed."

She rose and grabbed a blanket and a pillow from the cart and headed off to the far corner of their camp, where she settled herself in the grass and to all appearances fell into a deep slumber.

It had become somewhat obvious by now what position each player occupied within the troupe itself. Cleo was the leader and protector of the group, like a mother bear viciously protecting her cubs. Mara could tell that no matter how much Cleo grunted and groaned about the troupe, the truth was that she regarded them as family and was willing to do absolutely anything for them.

Mara had only begun to place Flynn. He was more like the second in command, and not a passive one. He tried to involve himself as much as he could in the decisions made by the group. It seemed to Mara that his was a naturally quiet nature, and he preferred to be on his own most of the time. His calm state clashed slightly with Cleo's more rebellious one, but they made a good pair despite their differences, or perhaps even because of them.

All this she'd come to realize in the short space of a day. If she could know this much in such a short time, Mara realized, then how much could she come to know in a week, month, or year?

The only one she hadn't yet placed was Horatio. He was calm and reserved, like Flynn, but held some kind of power in much the same way Cleo did. Of course, he was a mage, but Mara had yet to see any of his magical gifts put to work. However this was only a first impression. Mara sensed that there was much more to this man than met the eye.

She stood and went over to sit beside him. He looked at her for a moment and smiled, then returned to gazing into the dying fire's flames.

At last, after a few minutes of silence, he said, "Come to place me, too?"

Mara raised a curious eyebrow. "I don't know what you mean," she said.

"Yes, you do. All day you've been watching us. Our movements, the way we speak, the way we react to different things. My guess is that you've long since placed Cleo into a neat little package, and maybe even Flynn too. Now you've come to examine me, as well."

"I like to know the people I'm with, that's all."

Horatio smiled and shook his head. "It's not a bad thing," he said, never turning his gaze away from the bright orange flames that danced hypnotically before them. "Many people like to categorize others, put them in pretty little boxes and wrap them with fancy paper. But what they fail to realize is that there are so many things about others that they'll never see. And if they do manage to find something new about a person, that person has to be taken out of their box and placed in a new one. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Now he turned towards her, a kind look of gentle wisdom on his face.

"You're saying," said Mara slowly as the point of his words took root in her mind, "that there will always be something about people that will manage to surprise me, even after I think I've got them completely figured out. Is that right?"

With another smile, this time of approval, Horatio slowly got to his feet. "Have you found me a box yet, little dove?"

Mara inhaled sharply. Little dove. That was what her mother had always called her. "What did you just call me?"

"Little dove. It's a nickname my people used for pretty young things such as yourself. Why, don't you like it? I think it suits you perfectly."

"Who are your people?" Mara asked.

Horatio only smiled and waved his hand in a calming motion. "In due time, Marania, in due time."

He seemed to know already what a powerful affect those two little words had had on her. Mara shivered as he walked over to the cart to get his own pillow and blanket. He settled on a soft spot close to the cart, and once he'd lain down, Horatio, like Cleo, ceased to move.

"Who are his people?" Mara asked across the fire at Flynn.

The young man shrugged. "I've been trying to get him to tell me for three years, now. If you can figure that one out, you'll have conquered the world." He stood and picked up the bucket of sand that sat beside him. Flynn threw the sand over the fire, then said, "Goodnight, Mara."

Mara nodded. "Goodnight," she mumbled thoughtfully. It was a long time after Flynn had settled down before Mara rose to get her blanket. When she finally dropped into a restless sleep, she dreamed of her mother standing in a field, her arms wide open, beckoning to her to come. Mara tried to run to her mother, but the field's distance began to stretch them further and further apart before the earth eventually cracked, revealing a deep black hole in the ground. Her mother, having lost all hope, turned sombrely on her heel without a single word and walked away.

She woke the next morning before anyone else, gasping for air and nature's quiet reassurance that it had only been a dream. The songs of several morning birds met her ears, as well as the angry chatter of a squirrel and Flynn's contented snoring. Cool dew misted her hair and the sun shone gaily through the trees, warming her face.

When the rest of the troupe awoke, Mara was already dressed and ready, sitting on the cart and happily biting into an apple.

"Ready to go?" she asked cheerfully.

Cleo groaned and covered her face with her pillow, Flynn sat up and stretched, and Horatio was the only one to get up right away. He laughed at Mara's cheery disposition and took his bag into a clump of trees to dress. Flynn and Cleo followed suit not two minutes later when he called to them that if an old thing like him could get out of bed, they certainly could, too.