The Rose's Thorns

by Bill Snodgrass

 

Duchy of West March

The Kingdom of Delandi Dinaule

4926, Midspring

Week 5, Day 2

 

 

Marah scrutinized the reflection in the looking glass, and holding up a bow to where it might be situated in her hair, she declared, “What do you think? It would be cute, wouldn’t it?”

 

“Dear cousin,” Claire declared with an authoritative air, “take it from me... When going to a fancy society ball, a girl in your position wants to look anything but cute.”

 

Marah lowered the bow and turned to Claire with thoughtful eyes.

 

“Are you not practically nobility?” Claire asked rhetorically. “After all, your father is the steward of a wizard and you’re his eldest daughter. A wizard’s steward has place enough in society that his daughter ought to be setting her sights pretty high in terms of a husband. To attract the kind of man you should be after... or more to the point, the man you are after... you want to forget cute. Elegant, maybe. Beautiful, certainly. Sophisticated... Anything but cute. Cute is for little girls, not young women hoping to attract a fancy suitor.”

 

Marah soaked in the words of her cousin. Claire was nineteen, two years older than Marah, and engaged. Thus, her opinion on matters of romance carried a great deal of sway.

 

“So, no bow?”

 

Claire shook her head as she pillaged through the items on the dressing table.

 

“Try this,” the older cousin suggested lifting Marah’s hair, drawing it together, and fastening it in place with a silver comb.

 

Marah smiled at the reflection in the mirror.

 

Very elegant, she thought.

 

“I like it.”

 

“It looks nice on you.”

 

“I just hope...” Marah did not finish the thought and Claire did not need her to. Both young ladies knew it was Marah’s hope to be noticed by the duke’s son, Sedrick.

 

“Don’t worry,” Claire said after a moment. “He’ll notice you. It’s not as if you are strangers. You were in Letter School together, weren’t you?”

 

“Only one year. My first, his last. That was seven years ago when I was ten and he was thirteen.”

 

“Well, that was not the only time you ever saw him. Don’t be so skeptical. All those years being forced to society events amount to something. Balls, banquets, picnics and the like... He’ll remember you.”

 

“I suppose you are right.”

 

Claire moved away from Marah and took a seat in the plush chair at Marah's dressing table. “If he doesn’t, then he must be simple in the head. He’s only been away two years. If his memory is that bad, then you’d sure not want to end up his wife!”

 

Marah smiled at Claire’s attempt to lighten the mood, but she was tense, just the same.

 

“Well, we’ll know in a few hours,” Marah sighed. “Papa said we would leave for the ball at sunset.”

 

The minutes passed slowly for Marah as she awaited her family’s departure for the ball. Not just any ball, but a ball hosted by the duke himself. Not just any ball hosted by the duke, but one in honor of his son’s return to the realm. Not just any son, but Sedrick, whom Marah had dreamed of since one of the society picnics nearly four years earlier.

 

She had never forgotten the kindness he had shown her after she had fallen into the brook trying to keep up with the older kids at play. Where the other kids had made a joke of it, he had been nice, lending her his cloak to cover her wet dress.

 

No boy or–as the years passed–young man had ever nudged the thought of Sedrick from her mind completely. His return to the realm just two weeks earlier rekindled her hopes and dreams.

* * *

 

“I can’t stand it,” Marah whispered to Claire in the back of the carriage as it finally pulled away from the steward’s manor.

 

Overhearing the remark, her father, assuming she was disgruntled by yet another forced appearance at a society event, huffed and replied, “I don’t ask you to do these things unless they are important. You know being the wizard’s steward means that I must keep in contact with the people of the realm, and these events are necessary. Master Hamblin counts on me, you know.”

 

Marah rolled her eyes, realizing he had misinterpreted her remark, but she let his assumption go uncorrected. She was just too anxious to dispute him.

 

Danus, Marah’s brother, her senior by two years like Claire, choked back his laughter, knowing well her true meaning, and realizing his father’s misunderstanding.

 

“Anyway, dear,” her mother added, “it is a good opportunity to meet nice young men from good families.”

 

Marah’s stomach jumped while Danus forced a cough to cover his near burst of laughter.

 

Marah interpreted her mother’s remarks silently. By “nice family,” she means rich. I’d be happy poor, if I could be with Sedrick.

 

Marah only nodded a reply to her mother, then turned away to watch the town of West March pass by. The estate of Wizard Hamblin–and therefore Marah’s home as well–adjoined Duke Wilfallen’s game reserve on the northern edge of the town. Their destination, the keep of the duke, was nearly in the center. Marah thought she would perish before the trip was completed and the carriage finally turned through the duke’s gate.

 

“This is it,” Claire whispered as the two young ladies allowed the footmen to help them to the ground.

 

“I am so excited!” Marah whispered back with eager expectation.

 

Had, at that moment, she known what was to come, she would have turned back around and spent the evening with the carriage driver. What began offering high hopes, proved quickly to be a disappointment.

 

After seeing Sedrick at the door where he greeted her by name and with a smile, Marah joined the rest of the throng of guests in the great ballroom. From a position by the musicians, she watched as the hours rolled on while Sedrick stood greeting each guest upon arrival.

 

Finally, when more than half the time appointed for the ball had passed, he left the door and began to circulate through the room. Once, Marah thought she saw him looking her way, but it was brief and certainly not indicative of anything.

 

The fell blow of the night came when the wife of a merchant with whom her father did a sizable amount of business came by, her shy, awkward son in tow. Hector was his name and, had he given the least attention to his appearance, he could have passed as little more than plain. Such attention, however, was not given. Not that it mattered to him, though. He cared even less for social relationships than he did for how he looked. His love in life was solitary pursuits, mostly those artistic.

 

Everyone knew why his mother forced him to attend such events–her own hopes that someday, somehow, he would connect with someone his age. Beyond her hopes, she thought he might eventually find a young lady to court and marry.

 

“Good evening Marah,” the merchant’s wife declared with a courteous nod of her head.

 

“Good evening, Lady Madge,” Marah replied.

 

“Look who it is, Hector,” she said with a nod to Marah. “Lady Marah.”

 

“Hi Marah,” Hector said dutifully, as he had countless times before when she had so introduced them. “How do you like the music? I think the players were better at the fall concert.” Hector was not unpleasant, but his attempts to make conversation always seemed abrupt and awkward, though honest.

 

“Good evening Hector,” Marah replied politely. “The music at the fall concert was really fine wasn’t it?”

 

“Yeah,” Hector said with a nod. “Well, nice to see you again.” That would have been the end of it, had Hector’s mother not been there. It was Hector’s practice to pass a few pleasant words, then say little more.

 

The routine interchange with the merchant’s son was not, by any means, what ruined the evening for Marah. That customary interaction was one that she had come to accept as part of most social events. It was his mother’s attempt to draw out the conversation that spoiled the night.

 

“Now, Hector,” Lady Madge declared, “doesn’t Marah look cute tonight.”

 

Marah did not hear what Hector had to say. The word “cute” rattled through her head so loudly she was deaf to all else.

 

Cute! No, not cute! Cute is for little girls! her thoughts screamed. Not cute! Not tonight, of all nights!

 

Cute, elegant, or even ugly, however, made no difference. Sedrick’s course through the crowd never led him to where the musicians sat–to where Marah stood hopefully waiting.

 

Her disappointment in having no chance to speak to Sedrick and her horror of Lady Madge’s assessment of her appearance filled her completely on the way home leaving no room for any mood otherwise. She hurried from the carriage ignoring the footman’s offer of assistance, took a lamp from the foyer, and went straight to her room. One slipper, she tossed toward the dresser, the other elsewhere. The gown was shed quickly and carelessly draped over the footboard of her bed. She rid herself of her corset, snuffed the lamp, and plunged into a pool of self-pity and a pile of covers. In the blackness that came with half-night, she finally pushed out the irksome thoughts of the ball, and fell asleep.

 

Days passed, Claire returned to her own home, Marah resumed her routine, but still, the sting of Lady Madge’s remarks was acute.

 

Cute… After all the effort to be beautiful, all I get is cute? She dwelled on the thoughts constantly.

* * *

 

It was a week after the ball while visiting the estate of a sage who often loaned the nobility of the area volumes from his vast library when Marah next ran into Sedrick. He was coming down a flight of stairs into the main room when Marah looked up and saw him.

 

She ignored her skipping heart, stuffed down her overwhelming joy, and calmly rose with a restrained smile to greet him.

 

“Sir Sedrick,” she said formally with a curtsey.

 

“Lady Marah,” he replied with a bow.

 

The proper courtesies out of the way, both Marah and Sedrick noticeably relaxed.

 

“What are you doing here?” she asked, all traces of formal ceremony gone from her tone.

 

“Aw, just looking at some maps. While I was off training under the sword master, I heard about a war far off to the south. I just wanted to see where it was. What about you?”

 

“Me?” Marah asked, a little surprised he would be interested, but not daring to infer meaning into his attention. “I came to return a book my mother borrowed, but while I was here, I thought I’d pick out something to read myself.”

 

“And have you found anything?”

 

His interest in her seemed genuine, but Marah dared not hope–dared not even allow the thoughts to form in her mind.

 

“Yes... A lovely account from the elves. A history of the early days.”

 

Just then, as Marah was about to tell him more about her selection, a figure appeared in the doorway. It was Jessica, a daughter to the Earl of Centerville, a neighboring region within the kingdom.

 

Jessica was at least two years older than Marah, tall, graceful and striking–nothing if not beautiful. Her hair swept forward over one shoulder and flared across the bodice of her dress catching the rays of light that filtered in through the stained glass windows of the library. Her smile was perfect, unstrained and warm. In her eyes was a light of grace and kindness. Spry and delicate was her walk as she approached.

 

“Lady Jessica,” Sedrick said, once more with customary formality due a child of nobility.

 

“Good Sir,” she replied in like manor and tone to Sedrick, then turning to Marah, she added with a warm, genuine smile, “My Lady...”

 

“My Lady,” Marah replied with the expected curtsey.

 

After greetings had been fittingly exchanged, Sedrick and Jessica struck up a conversation that quickly left Marah feeling left out. Jessica asked about his absence from Delandi Dinaule and he answered with an account of the past two years. Though Marah was not overtly excluded, more and more with the passing of minutes, she felt the discussion drifting away. Frustrated, she took leave of them.

 

“Goodbye, Marah,” Jessica said.

 

“Bye, Marah,” Sedrick added. “It was nice to visit with you.”

 

Marah forced a smile and waved as she hastened from the library.

 

For a minute, she thought. For a minute it seemed like… OH! Then Jessica had to show up and ruin it all!

 

When she got back to the estate of Wizard Hamblin, she went to his keep instead of to the manor where her family lived. For years–nearly since she could walk–she had called on the wizard regularly.

 

As a small child, he often gave her little treats that she attributed to his magic, though in truth, they were products of his love for cooking. As a young woman of seventeen–an age at which as many of her peers were married as were not–she laughed at her mistaking his cooking for magic. Not so rarely still, the wizard would have a pastry for his steward’s daughter when she came calling, but over the last few years, although the treats kept coming, Master Hamblin had not given her as much time in conversation as she remembered him giving her when she was a child.

 

Instead, over the last few years, Marah often found herself sitting in the large open room of the keep from which all the other rooms and stairs led talking, not to the master of the estate, but rather to the son of the captain of his elite guard.

 

Glavin, son of Roth, was eighteen and had grown up at the foot of the wizard his father protected. Roth was a local legend for his skill at arms, and had taught his son enough that he, too, was respected highly. Besides a life-long friendship with Marah forged over the years at the feet of the wizard sharing goods from his kitchen and stories read from books, Glavin was also a true and enduring companion of Danus, with whom he had shared many a hunting and fishing adventure.

 

Entering the keep without knocking, Marah stepped into the large main hall of the keep. Spying Glavin as she had hoped gave a lift to her spirits. He was busily toiling away in an area of the large room set aside as a workshop, but noting her entry, he looked up from the grinding wheel and gave her a smile and wave.

 

“What are you doing?” she asked coming to his side at the workbench.

 

“A little repair to a battle axe,” he explained laying the war implement to the side and giving Marah is full attention. “What have you been up to?”

 

“Oh, I am just back from the sage’s library.”

 

“What did you find this time?”

 

“More history.”

 

“Elves?”

 

“You know me too well.”

 

The shuffling of feet across the room turned both their faces toward the sound. The Wizard Hamlin had entered the room, his handsome face bearing its customary smile.

 

“I thought that was the voice of Lady Marah I heard,” he said. His voice was crisp, strong, and confident. He stood tall and lean and moved agilely across the room. “And as most days, she has timed her arrival just right! Today’s culinary experiment comes from the dwarves, if you can believe it. Something of a tart.”

 

“Dwarven pastries?” Marah said with a scowl.

 

Wizard Hamlin just kept his steadfast smile fixed to his face in reply. With a nod, he turned back through the doorway in the direction of the kitchen.

 

Marah and Glavin crossed the room to a pair of wooden chairs between which sat a low, knee-high table. It would not be the first time those chairs and that table had been used to sample the wizard’s creations.

 

“How was the ball?” Glavin asked. “I forgot to ask you about it the other day when you came by.”

 

He had not attended. It was a society event, and his status as the son of a guard, local legend or not, did not afford him an invitation.

 

“It was crowded. I barely saw Sedrick. Barely passed words with him.”

 

“That’s not unusual for those kinds of things is it?”

 

“I guess not. But today...”

 

Glavin allowed her to leave the sentence unfinished for a long moment before coaxing her to go on.

 

“Today what?”

 

“At the library...”

 

Marah explained how she had bumped in to Sedrick and how the conversation had been great.

 

“Until beautiful Jessica showed up. I swear, he took one look at her and I might as well have been a shaggy sheep dog for the attention he gave me. She is so perfect.”

 

“I have never met her,” Glavin replied.

 

“The bad thing is,” Marah said pouting, “she is not only beautiful, she is nice too. It is as if she doesn’t even know how perfect she is. You can’t dislike her, because she really is a nice girl.”

 

Glavin smiled and huffed a brief laugh.

 

“I’d do anything to have such looks. I know Sedrick likes me, but I am just too plain to hold his attention.”

 

“Careful what you say, Lady Marah,” the crisp voice of Wizard Hamlin declared from behind her. “Careful saying you would do anything. That could lead to trouble.”

 

“Trouble?” Marah asked. “What possible trouble could come from being beautiful?”

 

Hamlin placed the tray of dwarven tarts on the table then stood and stepped back.

 

“Dear Lady, you know with the rose, you always get thorns too.”

* * *

 

A month passed following the sampling of the dwarven tarts–a month of lengthy discussions between Marah and Wizard Hamlin. At last, the course and content of the dialogue seemed to reach agreement.

 

“As I have said,” Wizard Hamlin stated definitively, “I can use magic to change how you look. But, it will be slow, if I am to do it properly. A couple of years, really.”

 

“Yes, we have discussed that,” Marah replied somewhat impatiently. “You said it would be like how the elves shape trees and such. A little magic here and there to change how things grow.”

 

“And,” Hamlin replied, “at your age, there is not much more growing to do, but enough that we can improve it.”

 

Marah nodded her understanding of the process. A long pause followed. A tense pause, for both Marah and Hamlin knew that what next must be agreed was the price. At last, the wizard spoke.

 

“Marah, you have known me all your life. You know, as far as wizards go, I am not highly esteemed and certainly not overly wealthy.”

 

Marah nodded, but said nothing.

 

“I am a healing wizard. I don’t make fancy items that people covet. The king has a healing wizard of his own and the duke rarely has need for me. I sit out here all but forgotten.”

 

“But people come from far away for your help,” Marah protested.

 

“True, but rarely do they have the means to pay me in equal measure compared to other wizards. A wizard who makes a magic sword has no compulsion for the sake of humane consideration to sell his sword for a small price. Such a wizard can demand a price and feel no shame in refusing less. For me, to turn away a poor man bitten by a viper and let him die... Well, I can’t do that. Therefore, I don’t have the wealth... or the esteem... of other wizards.”

 

“But you have the gratitude of many people...” Marah replied.

 

“And...” Hamlin said with a smile that, for the first time, verged on avaricious, “if you accept my offer, I’ll hope to win your gratitude as well. A man in my situation would do well to have the gratitude of a duchess.”

 

Marah swallowed hard.

 

“Do you understand what I am saying?” Hamlin asked, his smile returning to its familiar form.

 

“I understand,” Marah replied. “But what if Sedrick does not marry me? What then?”

 

“That is a hard question,” Hamlin replied. “I cannot invest years of time and magic into this endeavor with no prospect of repayment. Should it come to that, you will have to find some way to even the account.”

 

Marah nodded, forcing herself to ignore the unknown implication in the wizard’s words.

 

“Then it is agreed,” Hamlin stated. “Of course, we will have to keep this a secret.”

 

“Of course.”

 

Coming out of the wizard’s study into the main hall, Marah was surprised to find Danus and Glavin sitting together sharing similar looks of worry and concern. They rose as she entered the room and moved away from the workshop area toward her.

 

An uneasy tension quickly enveloped the three of them.

 

“What is it?” Marah asked speaking first.

 

Danus shook his head and said, “You’re not going to do this are you?”

 

“Do what?” Marah asked.

 

“Don’t be dumb, sister. This is no game.”

 

Marah conceded and replied, “I am going to do it. Yes.”

 

“Why?” Glavin said. “I don’t understand it. You don’t need to change anything about yourself.”

 

Marah had long before found an answer to the question that seemed right. “I want to be the best I can be...”

 

She had rehearsed a much longer answer that justified her desire for beauty without sounding vain, but Danus did not let her get to it.

 

“Bah! You just want to be so pretty Sedrick will fall in love with you. Well, you have it all wrong. Love doesn’t work like that.”

 

Marah would not stand for a lecture from her brother.

 

“What would you know about love?” she said and stamped off toward her home.

 

Danus followed close on her heals.

 

“Wait, Marah,” he demanded, but she did not pause.

 

“Go after her, Danus,” Glavin urged. “Talk some sense into her.”

 

Danus obeyed and caught up with Marah half way to their manor house.

 

“Look, all I mean is you need to be realistic about things,” Danus said. “You don’t know what you’re getting into with a wizard and all.”

 

“He is a fine person. Don’t go making vague accusations.”

 

Danus reached out and took his sister by the elbow. He turned her toward him and, his eyes filled with concern he asked, “Look, why do you want to go and do something to become something you aren’t?”

 

“I am not trying to become something I am not... Just a better version of what I am.”

 

Danus could not dissuade her further.

 

* * *

 

“So mother, what do you think?” Marah asked.

 

“Well, as I see it, anything you can do to attract the right kind of boy as a suitor is fine.”

 

Danus stormed out of the room, incredulous with his mother’s reply. He shook his head and rolled his eyes, but knew that nothing further he could do would make any difference.

* * *

 

The months that followed evidenced no drastic changes in Marah’s appearance. So gradual where the influences of Hamlin’s magic that one day’s variance was indiscernible. But time passed, and little by little the image of a beautiful woman waxed in Marah’s mirror while that of a cute young girl waned. More than anyone, save perhaps the wizard responsible, Marah could tell the difference.

 

Slight guiding of bone growth here and there resulted in a more sticking visage. Freckles faded, replaced by smooth, unblemished skin. Hair grew only where desired and became silken. By the time two seasons had passed, the task well begun, Marah was beginning to note great improvements.

 

The first chance to test the effect of her efforts came at a Mid-winter banquet hosted by the West March Merchant Guild. All the social leaders–merchants, landlords, and nobility–would be there, including their young adult children. It was a grand annual event that sometimes attracted even the king, himself.

 

Marah could care less if the king came or not. As far as she was concerned, he could show up with the all the elven kings and their entourages, and she would not notice. All that occupied her thoughts was how Sedrick would respond to her emerging beauty.

 

When the evening of the banquet came at last, she was happy with the results. Long before she could find Sedrick in the crowd, a score of young men she had know for years, but with whom she had hardly passed a handful of words, came up to her making conversation. A few asked for a place on her dance card and, for two of them, she granted the favor.

 

But it was Sedrick’s response that most satisfied her. He and one of the princes were making rounds together. Seeing her nearby and taking a second look, he smiled. He quickly took leave of those bending his ear and led the price toward her.

 

“Lady Marah,” he said in courtly manner.

 

“Sir Sedrick,” she replied.

 

“Marah, this is Prince Chandler.”

 

Marah curtsied and averted her eyes in respect. “My liege. A pleasure to meet you.”

 

“I’d say,” replied Sedrick, “the pleasure is his to make your acquaintance. You are looking very lovely tonight.”

 

“Ah, the duke’s son speaks for me, but his words bear the truth. A pleasure to meet you, indeed.”

 

Marah was not fully aware of the prince’s reply. She was relishing the remarks of Sedrick instead. She caught up to the conversation as Sedrick was telling Prince Chandler about her father.

 

“Marah’s father is steward to Wizard Hamlin.”

 

“That must be very interesting,” the prince replied.

 

For the better part of a quarter hour, Marah engaged the prince and–more importantly by her estimation–Sedrick in conversation sharing anecdotes about growing up on the wizard’s estate. When finally the demands of the crowd forced them to leave her, Marah was sure she saw Sedrick look back with a smile and nod.

 

She spent the rest of the night watching from afar as Sedrick circuited the room with the prince introducing him to the people of the West March Duchy. She watched, content inside knowing that she had commanded more than her share of his time, as he dutifully performed what his station in the realm demanded.

 

I wonder, if he were just a normal person, she mused, if he would have been happy to spend the whole ball talking with me?

 

The thought of living with Sedrick simply as two normal people played in her mind. Since that day at the brook, it had never been his status as duke’s son that attracted her to him. She told herself that it was his character–his genuine regard and interest in other people.

 

I would be completely happy with him, just as normal people who never went to balls or society banquets. Completely happy.

 

Her thoughts were gathered to the present by a crisp voice whispering in her ear.

 

“That seemed to go well,” Wizard Hamlin replied. “I think even the prince found you good company.”

 

The wizard’s remarks dispelled all thoughts of living a plain life with Sedrick. Master Hamlin was expecting the favor of a duchess.

 

* * *

 

The weeks after the banquet passed quickly and marked the passing of seasons, while banquets followed balls that followed picnics. Each gathering of the West March social elite proved more obviously the effectiveness of Hamlin’s craft.

 

Sedrick continued to regard her with interest, sometimes lingering in conversations with her longer than with others, always kind and complementary. At the same time, he was always ambiguous regarding any romantic notion and moreover, he never asked if he could call on her at her home.

 

Though Sedrick declined to express any overt amorous inclination, many of the young–and some not so young–men did. By fall of 4927, Marah had lost count of the requests to call on her she had denied. The six seasons that had passed since the day of the dwarven tarts had created a woman whose beauty was discussed at large in the community.

 

More than one matron of West March whispered “late bloomer” when they saw Marah for the first time in a while. More than one young man departed from decorum and, rather than asking for permission to call upon her at her home, invited her to spend time with him, there on the spot where they met.

 

Perhaps most notably was Prince Chandler’s sudden interest in attending social events in West March. Duty and protocol aside, he often found his way onto her dance card and into whatever corner she stood to watch for Sedrick. The prince’s attention did not pass unnoticed and rumors began to emerge, some innocent, others grand, some coarse and bawdy, but all unfounded.

 

Yet, in and through it all, Marah steadfastly kept to her plan. Her affection for Sedrick, even if only in her mind, did not waiver.

 

As arranged, she continued to visit the wizard for refinement of bone and flesh. Coming into the keep one day, after so many months, she was surprised to find, not only her friend Glavin busy with some task, but also Hector. The shy merchant’s son turned and smiled as she entered, changed too–but only naturally by the passing of time–and looking more a man then an awkward boy.

 

“Hey, Marah,” Glavin called out as she entered.

 

Marah moved to where the two stood, once more in the workshop area of the hall.

 

“What’s going on?” she asked.

 

“Just putting a better edge on these shears,” Glavin replied. “You know Hector, right?”

 

“I do,” Marah answered.

 

“Hi Marah,” Hector said with a smile.

 

“He’s going to take over the garden for Master Hamlin.”

 

Hector nodded, then added, “Mamma doesn’t approve of it, but it’s good... Keeping a garden, I mean. I... I think of it as art. Coaxing the beauty from a shrub or getting a blossom to bloom just so.”

 

“That’s a nice way to think of it,” Marah replied. “As art...”

 

Hector smiled. “Master Hamlin is going to let me do whatever I want. I think I’ll sculpt the privet into animals. It’ll take until summer before the shape comes out, but it will be real nice.”

 

“Sounds like something the elves would do,” Glavin said cutting his eyes at Marah. He knew she loved stories and history about the elves.

 

“Oh, yes,” Marah agreed. “It will be lovely!”

 

“I am going to put in a rose garden, too. Out by the gate where they will be plenty of sun.”

 

“That will be very nice,” Marah replied.

 

In the weeks that passed, Marah often saw Hector at work in the garden as she walked toward the wizard’s keep. She passed sometimes without speaking, but sometimes stopped to speak to him about his work.

 

“Oh, it’s not much, yet,” he would often say, dismissing his efforts shyly.

 

Marah always tried to be nice to him–as she had seen Sedrick be nice to all the people of the realm. She told herself, I hope, if I ever get the chance to be duchess, I can be as liked by the people as he is.

 

As the days passed and Marah made her frequent visits to see Hamlin, Hector began routinely looking for Marah as she returned home. She came to expect his near daily greetings and brief–always brief–explanations of his latest accomplishments. Too, at times, he would comment on Marah’s work with the wizard, which he seemed to understand completely.

 

On one occasion talking to Hector, after a brief exchange about his recent work, he leaned on his hoe and looked thoughtfully at Marah. Marah looked back, seeing a peculiar look in his eyes, knowing and caring, honest and innocent all at once.

 

“Lady Marah,” Hector said with rising expression. It seemed almost a question, unstated.

 

She focused on him fully with a smile.

 

“You know you are pretty on the inside too, don’t you?”

 

Marah swallowed hard. “Thank you, Hector.” They were the only words she could find.

* * *

 

In the following weeks, as her growing beauty ceased to catch people by surprise, the words directed toward Marah often ceased to be kind. Marah was not deaf to the rumors, born some out of jealousy, others out of spite, that she was using her late-bloomed beauty for purposes unbefitting a lady of society. She dared not respond to them, fearing to do so would only give tender to the lies. Instead, she went out of her way to be obvious about her integrity and adherence to proper conduct.

 

Nevertheless, her trips to the market often resulted in unwanted advances from men she had never met. Though she knew them not, they recognized her, many believing—hoping that the rumors were true.

 

Even when no words were spoken, Marah knew she was being watched. Entering a store, she felt the eyes of most every man present playing over her. Most men, in truth, behaved decently, turning back to their business quickly, hoping their lustful moment had passed unseen. But even then, knowing that her beauty had drawn so much unwanted attention was uncomfortable.

 

Other men were not so polite.

 

“My, my, my,” one said suggestively as she passed by, a tame example of the remarks often directed toward her.

 

Marah made no defense against such affronts, electing to ignore them totally. She endured the unwelcome advances by holding to the hope that Sedrick would eventually act on what she knew he must feel about her. Holding to that hope was all she could do.

* * *

 

Not long before spring arrived, Danus caught up with Marah as she strolled along the edge of Hamlin’s estate. She had all but given up on walking the streets of West March, taking exercise by walking the edge of the estate and often venturing into the duke’s game preserve as well. Seeing Danus approach, she paused to allow him to catch up.

 

“Hiding in the woods?” he asked.

 

“If you have come to make my day poorer, then you can just leave,” she replied.

 

“I am sorry,” Danus responded.

 

They walked in silence for some distance, reaching the end of the estate before either spoke again.

 

“Look,” Danus finally said as he followed after Marah ducking into the woods. “I know that you are committed to winning Sedrick, but I think you have to look at things as they are.”

 

“What are you talking about?” Marah asked.

 

“Look at you. You are the most beautiful young lady in the kingdom. You are nice, smart, and funny too, when you’re in the mood.”

 

“You are leading to a point?” she replied.

 

“The point is, even after these seasons and all the social events, Sedrick has not called on you. He has not even asked to call on you. He has been on your dance card only a few times. I just don’t think he is interested in you, that way.”

 

Danus’s words served only to awaken Marah’s defenses.

 

“You say that just to be mean!” she retorted. “He treats me very nicely, now. He gives me a lot of his time, too.”

 

“Well, he is nice to everyone, Marah. Everyone. That’s just his way. Sedrick is a nice person and treats everyone nicely.”

 

This assertion, Marah could not dispute. It was one of his traits most precious to her.

 

“But he gives me more time than most people.”

 

Danus smiled and shook his head.

 

“I am afraid you wait for something you will never have. All the while, someone near you loves you, but you ignore it.”

 

Marah froze in her tracks and turned to her brother. His expression added nothing to his words.

 

“What are you saying?”

 

“You’re not deaf. You heard me.”

 

“Who?”

 

Danus shook his head contemptuously with a frown. “Forget it. If you can’t tell when someone loves you, then just never mind.”

 

At that he turned away and headed back toward their house. Though she pressed him later for more information, he stubbornly refused to say anything further.

 

Laying in bed that night, she pondered his words and drifted through her memories, settling on the odd conversation with Hector.

 

“You know you are pretty on the inside too, don’t you?” he had said.

 

Shaking her head in disbelief, Marah curled into her covers and settled her thoughts again on Sedrick. Half-night found her soundly asleep deep in her dream of being duchess.

* * *

 

Spring of 4928 finally arrived, nearly two full years after the day of the dwarven tarts. Marah arrived at the wizard’s keep as usual and met him in his study.

 

“Lady Marah...” he said as he settled down to study her face once more. Each day, he seemed to see her face for the first time, endlessly taking measurements and calculating numbers. “Have you thought further about what might happen, should Sedrick not take a fancy to you?”

 

The question caught her cold and she could not find words to make a reply. Indeed, she had considered it, but the consequences, in light of her agreement with Hamlin, were too hash for her to dwell upon.

 

“I’ll take your silence to mean you have come to no alternative,” the wizard finally declared putting away a large caliper he used to assess the symmetry of her face.

 

Marah swallowed hard but made no reply.

 

“Well, let’s hope your plan works as you wish it. However...”

 

Finally, unable to bear the suspense, Marah spoke. “However what?”

 

“However,” he said, once more with the avaricious smile, “you could do better than being a duchess, if you had the interest.”

 

Marah returned only a look of confusion.

 

“Never mind, for now,” he said, “but our work is nearly done. If you haven’t noticed yourself of late, you are beautiful. Just a few more little improvements.”  

* * *

 

Hamlin’s suggestion that her goal might not be reached unsettled her more–much more–than his cryptic remark about doing better than duchess. Had she given it half a thought, she would have discerned his implication, but she didn’t. Instead, her thoughts remained fixed on Sedrick and winning, at last, his favor. She clung to the hope, the dream.

 

The early summer plants in the garden were in full bloom a few days later when Marah returned, once more, to Hamlin’s keep. She entered the main hall to find Danus and Glavin sitting in the chairs by the low table. They were finishing something that looked like chocolate and pretended to have left none for her when they saw her. Their jest was weak, and she strolled over to claim her portion.

 

The moment passed and a sober looked took hold of both the young men’s faces. They were looking at Marah.

 

“What?” she asked cheerily, not yielding to their mood.

 

“Marah...” Danus declared. His words held ground as he stood up.

 

“What?” Marah asked again, finally giving in to their gloom.

 

“I told you this was a bad idea,” Danus started, then quickly took a different tact. “I mean, you knew that nothing was for sure about Sedrick when all this began. You knew it was a risk.”

 

“What?” Marah asked again, fully engaged in her brother’s words. “What happened?”

 

“Marah,” Glavin said joining the other two standing, “it is just a rumor, but we heard something about Sedrick.”

 

“A rumor?”

 

“They say he is calling on Cherette,” Danus responded.

 

“Cherette? The magistrate’s daughter? There is no way!” Marah protested.

 

“That is what I heard,” Danus replied. “Just today, when I was at the trading house.”

 

Marah sat down in Danus’s chair and sighed, years of hope leaching away with her breath replaced by unnamed fears and worries to dark for words. She sat there, silent and motionless for some time, until Hamlin entered the room and called for her to follow him into the study.

 

“I think today will be the end of our work,” he said. “Come see me tomorrow and we can discuss your options for my recompense.”

 

Marah did not reply, numb to his words and oblivious to his last efforts toward her beauty. Her mind was clouded by despair as it vied against the last shreds of hope she held that her brother and Glavin were wrong.

 

She hardly noted the passing of time as the wizard completed his work. At long last he estimated that he could do nothing more to improve Marah’s beauty. She, on the third day of the eighth week after Midspring, 4928, arose from the chair for the last time and passed without words from the study.

 

“Come see me tomorrow,” Hamlin said, but Marah was nearly oblivious to the words.

 

Leaving the wizard’s keep and heading toward her home, her attention was engaged by Hector standing in the path, hoe in hand and smile beaming on his face. Marah let her will to be kind command her actions as she drew near him.

 

“Good day, Marah,” he said, moving aside to allow her passing.

 

“Hi, Hector,” she replied, looking up. “The garden is looking nice. I am starting to see the animals you made from the privet too.”

 

“Yes,” he answered. “It takes time for the shapes to come out after cutting them back so much. Have you noticed the roses beginning to bloom?”

 

Marah looked up the path toward the gate.

 

“Lovely,” she remarked and strode toward them.

 

She stopped at one and leaned over to savor the fragrance. As she reached for the stem to draw the bloom toward her, Hector said, “Careful of the thorns. They hurt.”

 

Marah breathed in the breath of the flower, arose and turned to Hector with a smile. Seeing past him toward the wizard’s keep, halfway between the gate and the door stood Glavin, his eyes sad and his forehead wrinkled with concern. Seeing Marah smiling, his face relaxed and he cast a friendly wave to her.

 

Noting her looking over his shoulder, Hector turned to see what held her gaze. Seeing Glavin wave, Hector waved too. Glavin turned away and headed back toward the keep and the chores that kept him busy inside.

 

Hector looked back at Marah and smiled kindly. “Do you love him, too?”

 

Shock spilled over Marah at the innocent but poignant question.

 

“What?”

 

“I know you want to marry the duke’s son,” Hector replied, “but do you love Glavin? Do you love him back?”

 

“I don’t understand,” Marah replied, stunned by any of the meanings she might infer from his remarks. “I... I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

 

She didn’t wait for his reply, turning immediately for the gate.

 

“I am sorry if I said something bad,” Hector called to her.

 

She paused and glanced back at him. “No, you didn’t do anything wrong. I’ll talk to you later.”

 

“Okay, bye Marah,” Hector said with a wave.

 

When Marah came to the steps to her home, she looked back at the keep. Hector was back at work tending the beds, but his question rang in Marah’s head. Past Hector, she looked at the door through which Glavin had walked. Far too much had happened in the last two hours for her to sort it all out.

 

She carried herself to her room, and tossing her scarf on the dressing table, she kicked off her shoes and flopped on the bed to consider Danus’s news about Sedrick. When, after some time, she rolled on her side and caught a glimpse of her reflection in the looking glass, she was startled, at first not recognizing the image that looked back at her.

 

She sat up and stared, reconciling the account delivered by her brother with the actions of the duke’s son over the last two years. As tears filled her eyes, she gazed at the beautiful woman crying back at her.

 

What have I become? Who have I become?

 

Marah turned away from the mirror and sank into her pillows and despair, eventually finding relief in sleep.

* * *

 

Marah dreamed vivid dreams. Not dreams of being a duchess. Dreams of growing up on the estate and endless days spent with Glavin. Danus came to her in that dream saying, “If you can’t tell when someone loves you, then just never mind.” Hector came to her too.

 

“Do you love him back?” he asked.

 

But for Hector and Danus’s intrusions, it was a pleasing dream. A dream of happy times, carefree times.

 

Marah awoke hours later, as sunset approached. She tried to cling to the images of the dream, but they faded fast. As she became fully awake, all that remained was a sense of bliss and snatches of scenes that had occupied her slumber.

 

Instead of the clear pictures and scenes of the unconscious, she managed only a vague realization, an epiphany as to Glavin’s feeling for her. Putting her brother’s words and Hector’s words together, she finally understood.

 

But with the lifting of the veil of unconsciousness came the return of her thoughts about Sedrick. She sat up at last and shook her head, unable by her review of the last two years to refute Danus’s claim.

 

He just doesn’t see me that way, she thought. He has never been anything but kind to me. Little more than a friend, if even that. I am so foolish.

 

A wave of grief washed over her once more, but for only a moment, for behind it came a much larger wave of dread.

 

Master Hamlin is expecting the favor of a duchess. What am I to do now?

 

Her head spun with thoughts and feelings–worry about Wizard Hamlin, disappointment regarding Sedrick, anxiety toward Glavin. Marah looked into the eyes of the slightly unfamiliar woman in the mirror for help, but she bid no response to the quandary. With a shake of her head, Marah arose and prepared for the approaching dinner hour with her family.

 

Marah joined her family for the evening meal but remained quiet amid their conversations. In her own head, she wrestled with the competing issues at length. Not long after the final course was served, she bid her family good night and retired to her room.

 

Sleep came fitfully that night and she awoke early. She dressed quickly, intent to face the day bravely. The morning seemed to crawl along allowing Marah abundant time to build her worries and concerns to a crescendo. At last, she found herself in the presence of Wizard Hamlin.

 

“No doubt, you have learned that your love calls on another?” His remark was not cruel, carrying undertones of nothing less then sympathy.

 

Marah bit her lip and nodded.

 

“Dear girl...” he said with a shake of his head.

 

Marah looked at Hamlin. His concern for her was clear and genuine. His customary smile was affixed in its customary place, but there was a hint in his eyes that belied a hidden intent.

 

“I have been such a fool,” Marah finally said.

 

“It was a risk from the very beginning,” Hamlin replied. “Love is a difficult thing to predict.”

 

Marah nodded.

 

“It catches you by surprise more times than not,” the master of the estate declared. “Planning for one particular person to fall in love with another is not a good bet.”

 

Marah could not disagree and found no words to add to his remark. Her dipped head replied on her behalf.

 

“But, beauty is a power,” the wizard continued, a slightly brighter tone in his voice. “It was a safe bet that someone would be enchanted by you beauty. I always knew what was inside you was beautiful. The outer shell was adequate when we began refining it. I knew such beauty would not go unnoticed by everyone.”

 

Marah looked up, puzzlement furrowing her brow. Hamlin looked back, sympathy stretching the corners of his mouth.

 

“I had hoped... intently hoped, for your sake, that the duke’s son would find your looks enough enticement to discover he loved your charm. I truly hoped for that, for your sake. But I did not bet on that. I did, however, bet that your beauty would capture someone. A noble of some standing I hoped. Someone, I felt sure, would wish to court you.”

 

Marah’s expression remained strained and her voice silent. Hamlin simply smiled wider and gave his head a slight shake.

 

“Young lady, were you so fixed on winning the duke’s son that you failed to realize you had smitten the son of the king? Did you not know that Prince Chandler had taken to you so?”

 

Marah was stunned, shaking her head slightly in reply.

 

“It has been the talk of the town for months,” Hamlin added. “Surely you knew.”

 

“I... I... had no... idea.” Her words came out involuntarily. Her mind, already burdened, could hardly grasp the notion at all.

 

“Isn’t this great news?” Hamlin asked. “Instead of the favor of a duchess, I find myself in favor of a queen!”

 

Queen? Marah thought. Marry Prince Chandler?

 

“What are you saying?” Marah wanted the words to be plainly spoken.

 

“I am saying that the prince has more than once inquired after you. I have spoken to your mother and father. Of course, they are not opposed.”

 

“You spoke to my mother and father?”

 

“Yes,” replied Hamlin. “I told them of the prince’s interest and made sure they would approve.”

 

“You told my parents before telling me? By what right?” Marah’s tone was somewhat terse.

 

Hamlin was taken slightly aback. He tried to soothe her. “I knew what was coming, Marah. I could see where Sedrick’s heart was going. Your dream blinded you of it, but I feared the worse for you. Even before we began reshaping you, I spoke to your father. I was concerned how all this might affect you... afraid what might happen if Sedrick did not love you... and, as it turns out, my fears were grounded.”

 

“They never discussed this with me,” Marah asserted.

 

“You spoke to your mother on the matter yourself—she told me that. When I learned that you had already discussed it, I pledged them to silence on the matter of our discussions and worries. I did it out of concern for you. But what happens next is a benefit to us both. You have known all along that I have expected to be rewarded for my craft. The favor of a queen will be a welcome return.

 

“Queen?” Marah asked out loud.

 

“Yes, my lady. The prince arrives soon. He will court you properly, and you will marry. The king is not so young that I will outlive him, so upon his death, you will be queen. And I will be the queens favored wizard. It is simple.”

 

“Marry Prince Chandler?” Marah’s thoughts were repeating themselves, taking voice in short, clipped questions.

 

The smile fell from Hamlin’s face as he stood. His voice ceased being encouraging, taking a stern tone instead.

 

“You will allow the prince to court you, then you will marry him. It is that simple.”

 

Marah rose to her feet, too. Hamlin’s expression left no room for further discussion and he gestured for the door. Marah obeyed, passing quickly from the keep, through the garden, and too her home. She did not even see Glavin’s concerned look as she passed, nor take note of Hector’s handiwork in the garden. She hastened directly to her room, slammed the door and collapsed in a faint on her bed.

* * *

 

That afternoon passed dismally for Marah, trapped in an endless circle of thoughts, none of which resolved to a positive outcome.

 

Betrayed by my parents! I guess mother would deem the prince the right kind of boy!

 

Other strains of the cacophony in her head resounded themes of her folly.

 

How could I have been such a fool? How could I have believed Sedrick would ever love me? How could I have agreed to pay back Master Hamlin? I am such a fool.

 

Wallowing in her situation, Marah passed the afternoon, ignoring her mother’s plea that she come to dinner.

 

“Leave me alone,” Marah declared strongly through the closed door. “Just leave me alone!”

 

As evening came and darkness replaced the light, Marah continued to fume, to wrestle with the conflict in her head. She found nothing in the prince to love and was not inclined to marry him for his birthright.

 

She passed many long moments finding reasons to blame everyone but herself, though eventually, she could only claim one thing to offer her any sense of absolution.

 

It was Master Hamlin’s suggestion that started all this. HE offered the idea.

 

But beyond that, Marah accepted responsibility for the situation. Tears in her eyes, she accepted that the blame was only hers.

* * *

 

Sleep did not come to her that night, so when at well past half-night she heard tapping on her door, she was quick to respond.

 

“Who’s there?”

 

“It’s Danus. Open up.”

 

Marah obeyed.

 

“You have to get away,” Danus declared. “You have to go right now.”

 

“Go? Why?”

 

Danus noted that Marah was dressed, still wearing the clothes she had put on when she awoke.

 

“You’re still up? Have you not slept?” He did not wait for an answer. “That’s good luck! Grab a few things, quick. There is no time!”

 

Danus hurried to her wardrobe and pulled out a light coat and her riding habit.

 

“This will do for trekking the woods as well as it does for riding a horse. That’s enough for now.” He stuffed the few items into a pillowcase and took Marah by the elbow leading her out of the room.

 

“Quiet now,” he whispered. “We must not wake dad.”

 

Marah dared not speak until they had passed out the kitchen into the back garden. There she stopped, just as Glavin emerged from the shadows.

 

“Tell me now! What is going on?” she demanded.

 

“It’s Hamlin,” Glavin answered. “He’s afraid you won’t marry the prince, so he’s sending guards to keep you under watch.”

 

“What?”

 

“Marah, he’s going to have guards keep you in the manor or go with you anywhere you go,” Glavin said frankly. “He’s going to make sure you marry the prince.”

 

The meaning of the words sank in.

 

“How do you know this?” Marah asked.

 

“My dad...” Glavin said. “He knows... how... He knows what I think of you...”

 

“Roth told Glavin. Warned him. The guards are being gathered now, and will be coming to the house any minute.”

 

“I’ll be a prisoner...”

 

“No, you won’t,” Danus declared. “I’ll not see my sister whored off, even to a prince.”

 

Marah looked into the eyes of Danus, seeing finally his love for her in its entirety.

 

“What am I to do?”

 

“Take this pouch of coins. There’s not much, but it will get you by for a bit, need be. Head into the woods right away and make your way toward Far Keep.” Danus directed. “Get on the road and keep going. You should be able to make it to the inn at Far Keep Bridge by sunset.”

 

Marah looked at the inky black of the night sky offering no hint even of sunrise, and the irony of Danus’s remark curled the corners of her mouth slightly, but the gravity of the situation quickly pulled them back down.

 

“Go alone?”

 

“Just to get away fast,” Glavin responded. “I’ll get some supplies and things together and come after you. We’ll meet at the inn and...”

 

Marah looked at Glavin, recalling her recent realization of his love for her, and felt a wave of apprehension.

 

“We can’t just...” she began. “I mean two people alone... a man and woman...” She struggled for the words to express her reservation.

 

Two people?” Danus interjected. “I’m coming too. After tonight, I’ll not be welcome on this estate. We are all in this together, I am afraid and if Hamlin ever finds out what Roth did...”

 

Marah smiled and rushed to her brother, pulling him into an embrace. She turned to Glavin and embraced him too–not the first time she had hugged her friend, but this time, different.

 

“Go now!” Danus replied looking over his shoulder half expecting to see the wizard’s elite guards on their way.

 

“Wait,” Glavin said suddenly. He whipped off his belt from which hung a formidable dagger. “Here.”

 

He pushed the belt and weapon into Marah’s hands.

 

“Okay, now go!” Danus ordered and Marah hurried off towards the woods.

* * *

 

It did not take much forging through the woods in the dark to drain Marah’s strength and she began to regret her lack of sleep. Not a half-hour into the forest, she silently thanked Danus for the forethought to send her off with her riding habit. The trousers of the outfit proved far more practical for hiking the woods than the long, tapered skirt she had worn. She folded the skirt and stuffed it into the pillowcase to be donned later, if she ever found Far Keep and a road.

 

Coming to a brook she thought bent in the desired direction, she began following it. In a short time, she has missteped enough times to convince her that keeping her feet dry was impossible, so she took the easier course of wading. In time, though, the heaviness of her wet shoes weighed on her body, while the heaviness of her situation wrought with regret weighed on her mind.

 

By and by, the brook came to a deep, wide pool, so she stepped onto the bank and, finding a fallen log sat down. Her head hung low, drawn toward the ground by both her fatigue and her sorrow. She did nothing to track the time she rested there.

 

When, at last, she looked up, dawn had come washing the night sky gray. Mist hung here and there in the forest, veiling the things in the distance into obscure shapes and forms. Marah could not remember a time when she was so tired.

 

Perhaps I can lie down for a bit, she thought. A short rest will do me good and maybe I’ll dream of something to put these regrets out of my head.

 

As she scanned the ground for a place to rest, she noticed a sandy, gravel bank by the pool. She made her way there. The water looked refreshing and she realized she was as thirsty as she was tired.

 

Stooping to her knees, she leaned over the still water of the pool, her hand cupped in preparation to dip a drink to her lips. Suddenly, she saw her reflection.

 

In a great rush fogged by her present exhaustion, all the events of the past two years, spun through her head, a whirlwind of memories and thoughts, dreams and wishes, fears. The passing of eight seasons had marked the transformation of a little girl with high hopes into a young woman with shattered dreams. That young woman looked back at her from the pool, but Marah hardly knew her.

 

She was, this woman looking up from the pool, a vision, her beauty unparalleled. But Marah scoffed at the watery woman. What had physical beauty gained her, she wondered? Only carnal attention and lewd regard from men driven more by their lechery than their wit. She spat into the pool sundering the reflection that looked back at her.

 

______________________________________

It was 4928, Midspring, Week 8, Day 4.

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