While the villagers were traveling to Mirana, Jeth only approached Mareen once. When it happened she didn’t even notice he was there until it was too late. He seemed to just appear out of nowhere like a bad dream. He hissed, “Listen, you know you shouldn’t be talking to those outsiders. You shouldn’t be spending time with Jason. You are one of us. You are mine.”
Mareen whispered back, “Just go away. I have nothing to say to you.” She didn’t want to make a scene. Her conflict with Jeth was already a poorly enough kept secret among the villagers. She didn’t want to shame herself or George by allowing outsiders into a family problem any further. She didn’t want to create any more fuel for gossip or weaken George’s position as village leader.
Jeth sneered, “Have you no pride? You are a mage and you follow that Jason around like a pet. He’s an outsider. He’s not even from Ludus.”
“What I do is my business.” Mareen’s eyes narrowed. She realized Jeth was jealous. If it could make him leave her alone, maybe it’d be worth instigating him. “You aren’t the only boy around anymore. There are much better options.”
It was the wrong thing to say.
“Are you spreading your legs for him? Is that what this is you little slut?” Jeth tried to keep his voice under control, but anger was making him hoarse. “Are you going to have little half breed Terran children? Maybe I should show you what a real man can do to you.” Then Jeth did something he’d never done before—he grabbed her arm.
Mareen felt her skin crawl. She was so startled she didn’t even think to use her magic. She just wanted away! She pulled back but she couldn’t free her arm, “Let go of me!” She started to panic. Years of fear and anxiety all seemed to come back at once to suffocate her.
And once again, out of nowhere, Henry was there. “Leave,” he said to Jeth. What’s more, he didn’t threaten, he didn’t frown, his facial expression didn’t change at all but something about him was scary. He wasn’t even directing his attention at Mareen but she could still feel it. It felt businesslike, like Henry was just indifferent to Jeth continuing to breathe.
He effortlessly broke Jeth’s grip on her arm and pushed him away. Jeth looked like he wanted to say something, but bullies are usually cowards at heart; hehurried off. Mareen let out a long sigh, the tension in her back easing. She turned to thank Henry, happy that she also had an opportunity to talk to him, but he was already back to ignoring her again. How did he do that? He was like a cat!
The next day was the event that changed Mareens life forever… again. When Henry said he heard wolves, she was alarmed but she wasn’t sure if she really believed him. Then her mental state deteriorated as the caravan rushed to the clearing, the howls becoming audible. By the time she could actually see the horned demon wolves, she felt numb. She thought everyone was doomed, that there was nothing they could do. What’s more, it was at least partially her fault; it was all the villagers’ fault. None of them had truly believed that the demon wolves were really in the area.
She wanted to cry but she barely kept her composure as Henry and Jason stood between the demon wolves and the villagers. Most of the caravan hung on to the inside of the wagons, trying to watch while still staying within the dubious protection of the wagon circle.
When the fight actually started, Mareen no longer doubted that she was walking with living legends. First Jason used magic she’d never even heard of before to disappear from where he’d been standing, reappearing on top of a wagon. Then she saw Henry turn into an engine of violence and destruction. Oh, she’d seen Henry fight before. She knew he was a warrior, but that day, she witnessed the type of battle sung about by bards.
Henry slashed with his short steel sword, his “machete” and kicked the enormous demon wolves around like they were little more than puppies. He screamed his strange war cry and appeared not to have a care in the world, weaving around trees and escaping from the demon wolves in flashy ways. The way he kept barely escaping each attack made Mareen think that he was taunting them. He was mocking them, he had to be.
And it worked. While the demon wolves chased Henry, they largely ignored anything else. From time to time, Jason would suddenly appear among them and deliver death with his bronze sword. It was an amazing display of coordination and martial ability. Mareen wondered how long the two had been practicing together for this sort of thing. There is no way they could have just spontaneously come up with such an effective strategy.
The only time the demon wolves seemed to remember the villagers even existed was when one caught sight of Jason on the top of a wagon and loped over. Jason didn’t see the creature coming and disappeared to fight with Henry again. Mareen somehow managed to close her gaping jaw in time to take action. As the demon wolf jumped between the wagons, Mareen unleashed the one magical attack she could manage per day and spit. As soon as the spittle left her mouth, she turned it into a burning, caustic substance and accelerated it with all the remaining power she had left.
The acidic, magic-enhanced liquid bullet punched through the demon wolf’s haunch and the beast crashed to the ground. Quickly, before it could get up again, George ran in to hit it in the head and didn’t stop until the monster was still.
By that time the battle was over and she discovered Henry was hurt. His leg was a mess and at first she believed that she couldn’t do anything for him. However, as she worked with Jason to clean his unconscious friend and cover the mangled leg, she got yet another surprise. Both men had the legendary self-healing ability from ancient stories!
Mareen kept getting shock after shock and she wasn’t sure if she was adapting fast enough. As she helped Henry heal, she reflected on the fact that these men had saved her not once, but twice! What’s more, they saved the whole village and asked for nothing in return other than a share of the bland traveling food.
Henry in particular seemed to fear the possibility of eating the sour plants in the forest.
Then the day came that Jeth and his father Yelm ran away after stealing everything of value in the caravan… including Henry’s blessed steel sword. At first she thought Henry would be fine, he just seemed to be angry. But after following him at a distance into the forest and seeing him cry, she had an epiphany.
She’d been taking Henry and Jason for granted. She just kept feeling amazed and drawn to them, but she hadn’t once considered what she could do to repay their kindness or bravery. In fact, she couldn’t deny that she was interested romantically in Henry, but in a way, even that was selfish.
She was just taking from them. She wasn’t really trying to understand them. Henry’s pain was so deep it practically made the air tremble when he cried by himself in the forest.
Mareen was humbled. She knew that she was young, but she hadn’t actually felt immature or inexperienced around anyone else for years. Most of the people she lived with she’d known most of her life. Her grandfather had seen the world, but he was family so she took his experience for granted. On the other hand, she didn’t even know how to start relating to Jason or Henry.
She finally understood where she fit in to her new adventure. Henry and Jason needed help, they needed her. Despite their overwhelming strength and bravery, both men were surprisingly fragile. Mareen got the feeling that she’d only begun scratching the surface of the scars on Henry’s heart, and Jason was an idiot.
The questions Jason asked her… Mareen knew that if she was transported to an alien world, she’d be asking about shelter, food, how much water was present, what the local customs were, how to make money, and other practical matters. On the other hand, Jason kept asking questions about currency exchange rates, games, and “cat girls”. For some reason he insisted on calling feline Mo’hali “cat girls” and asked question after question about them, most of which Mareen didn’t have answers for. She didn’t know why, but Jason’s ceaseless line of inquiry irritated her at times.
Why would men care if a woman had cat ears? What did it matter if they went into heat like cats or procreated like humans? She didn’t understand why Jason seemed so interested in the Mo’hali.
While the caravan continued plodding on towards Mirana, Mareen thought long and hard about the coming crossroads in her life. Like all the villagers, she felt deep shame for what Jeth and Yelm Fortright had done. They brought dishonor on the entire village, especially for stealing from their protectors. Plus, the sheer amount of money stolen from Henry just made it worse.
She now knew Henry had a tough exterior on top of a mess of emotional wounds and Jason was brilliant, but his attention was directed in all the wrong places. Both men superficially seemed be powerful and dynamic, but in some ways they were not adjusting to Ludus very well. Mareen knew what she had to do. She was going to take care of these two idiots, these two heroes and redeem the honor of the village in one fell swoop.
She just had to tell her grandfather about her decision. It was important that she properly inform him she was leaving and she also needed her inheritance for her plan to work. For over a decade, George had been holding her father’s memento in trust for her. It was finally time for her to claim it.
She found George by himself a few days before they arrived at Mirana and bluntly said, “Grandfather, I’m going to leave the village after the caravan is settled.”
George was securing a bundle on one of the wagons with rope and didn’t look up when he answered, “Well, I can’t exactly say I’m surprised. I’ve known this was coming for a long time. What are you planning to do?”
Mareen took a deep breath. She knew George wasn’t going to like what she had to say. “I’m going to become an honor-bound indentured servant and gift the next 10 years of my life to Henry and Jason.”
“WHAT!?” George looked up from what he was doing, the unshed tears in his eyes completely forgotten as his emotions did a u-turn.
Mareen held up a forestalling hand, “Grandfather, wait to hear my explanation before you get more upset.”
George stilled himself with an obvious effort of will. “I’m listening.”
Mareen’s chin came up as she listed her reasons, “Those two saved our entire village. They saved the two of us. I owe them twice for my life. On top of that, two of our own people betrayed us and stole from them. The price of that machete would be almost enough to buy a house in a city. The debt we owe them is enormous.”
“That may be true, but becoming an indentured servant is too extreme,” George said. He frowned. “I told you before how indentured servants were a portion of history from Earth, where I come from. The concept was abused more often than not and used as a way to have slaves when slavery wasn’t legal.”
Mareen nodded, “Yes, Grandfather, and you and I both know it’s used that way here too since slavery laws aren’t really enforced very well in Tolstey. But this is something I will do voluntarily. Since I’m doing this for reasons of honor, nobody will be exchanging money. I won’t be in debt. My tenure will be based on time, not money owed. And my employer will not be able to sell my contract.”
George blew out his cheeks, “I really don’t like this. I can’t fault your logic, but I really, really don’t like this. The truth is that I have been feeling shamed about how those boys were stolen from, but I don’t like the idea of losing my granddaughter over it.”
“Grandfather, you’ve known Henry and Jason for almost two weeks now. Do you really think they wouldn’t let me visit you? In fact, I’m afraid I’m going to have to argue with them to let me do this. They might not even understand the concept. You said before that family ties and honor aren’t as important on Earth.”
“That’s right, they’re not, at least not in many countries.” George looked at her out of the corner of his eye, “Just please tell me none of this is because of what is going on between you and Jason.”
“What?” Mareen blinked, did he just say what she thought he said?
George looked uncomfortable, “Well I know you never courted before but you and Jason have been spending a lot of time together…”
“Stop right there, Grandfather.” Mareen snorted and rolled her eyes, “First of all, that doesn’t even make any sense. Second, what is wrong with all the men I know? Are you blind? I am not interested in Jason!” She realized that she’d unintentionally raised her voice. She didn’t mean to yell at George, but the turn the conversation had taken was ridiculous.
“But nothing! I don’t want to hear about this again. And I don’t want to be cruel, you practically raised me and I love you dearly, but I’m a grown woman and this is my decision!”
“…Fine,” grumbled George. “I still don’t have to like it, though. Please settle an old man’s heart and come visit me a week or two after we get to Mirana. I want to know that everything is okay. I knew you wouldn’t stay with me forever, but I can’t help worrying.”
Mareen smiled gently at the old man, ignoring George’s wet eyes and the unshed tears in her own. “It’s a deal,” she said.
The closer the caravan got to the city, the more nervous Mareen felt. She was sure of herself when she first made her decision, but a few days of traveling proved ample time for doubts to start setting in. By the time they actually reached the city gates, she felt like a bundle of nerves on two legs.
The pit of her stomach fell out when she and George learned the villagers no longer had enough to fund a land lease, even reduced by 50%. It was terrible. But then Jason gave up the last serious weapon he and his friend owned and asked for nothing in return. Again.
Mareen’s respect for the two strange men from Earth, for their honor, and her family’s shame caused all of her doubts to vanish. She would follow through with her decision. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be able to live with herself.
After the villagers started moving away from the city gate, she said goodbye to George with her eyes. She refused to cry. Everything had been said that needed to be said. Then she told Henry and Jason to stay where she could find them. She tried to make it clear that she was serious. She’d never given orders to people before so it felt strange. She’d have to get used to it if she was going to keep those two out of trouble, though.
Then she approached City Counselor Hirine. After they moved far enough away to talk without being overheard, she told the counselor what she intended. Counselor Hirine was skeptical, but she still nodded and said she understood. The equipment Mareen needed wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t too expensive either. Her promise to pay the city back was satisfactory. Hirine agreed to get what Mareen asked for and meet her at the City Planning Office.
Mareen wasn’t familiar with the city of Mirana, but she was able to find the City Planning Office without too much trouble by following the signs. She walked in and went straight to the Adventuring Affairs department.
The bored woman at the counter saw Mareen and didn’t seem impressed. She wore the orange and brown outfit of an Adventuring Guild clerk, her only accessory a necklace of polished wooden beads. Her appearance was otherwise unremarkable, her hair pulled back into a severe bun. “What’s your business?” she asked.
Mareen straightened her back. “I have come for a submission paper to form an adventuring company.
The clerk looked levelly back at Mareen, “You know you can’t get the form without first paying the fee to the city, the country, and the Adventuring Guild, right? It’s very expensive.”
“I have special circumstances,” Mareen smiled lightly. Then she produced her inheritance. On the counter, she reverently placed a folded letter and an embossed coin, the coin’s likeness being that of her father.
With a puzzled expression, the clerk opened the letter and her eyes widened. “You’re Thato Jacobs’ daughter? Even I recognize that name! Ah, this makes sense now.”
The clerk glanced at the coin. “All this must be what, 13 years old now?”
Mareen nodded, the old hurts still pained her, but her parents were murdered over a decade ago. She calmly said, “Yes. And as you can see, the Adventuring Guild area manager, Vala Hanel entrusted this to me for when I came of age. This is a onetime voucher for the creation of an adventuring company and membership of the Adventure Inner Circle for life.
“I see that.” The clerk nodded, “Sit down in the lobby for a few minutes while I do the paperwork. Now that I understand the situation, this is fairly straightforward.”
“Thank you,” Mareen replied and did as the clerk asked. A few minutes later, the clerk walked out holding a fancy looking parchment with official seals and a satchel. She placed the parchment in the satchel and said, “There are a few extra items in here that come with VIP adventuring company creations. I felt this would be an appropriate time to include them. Also, I don’t think I have to tell you to keep the parchment hidden until you fill it out and turn it in, right?”
“Yes, Clerk,” Mareen nodded, “I understand.”
“Good,” the woman seemed to relax, her official duties complete. “For what it’s worth, I was a fan of your father’s when I was a girl. I hope you do well and find a good team.”
Mareen smiled, “I think I’m off to a good start.”