Marian was small, thin and wiry, a child who got enough to eat but not much more, and who had the look of someone constantly active. It was written in her clothes, an undyed frock dress like most of the children in Redcliffe wore, covered in stains: grass, mud, and sweat. It was written on her skin as well, dirty and with the odd scrape on her arms or knees from when her latest adventure went a bit too far (in her mother's opinion; in Marian's, too far still wasn't usually far enough). She kept her black hair pulled out of the way in a tail, so as not to obscure her eyes or get it caught on the fences she'd slip under or hedges she'd crawl through. She had shoes, the leather turnshoes most peasants wore, though she'd left them somewhere at the moment; it was easier to climb in bare feet, and her soles were tough.
Climb, because Marian was currently sitting on the Thatcher's roof, where she was absolutely forbidden to go. But it was so easy to scramble up to the rooftops in Redcliffe and run along them, a street in their own right, and the view was much better. She could see most of the town, except the parts blocked by the Chantry (far and away the tallest building, of course). More importantly, she could see the road up to the castle, which her father had walked up that morning. He still wasn't back, and that was very odd. It was odd that he'd gone up to the castle to begin with. The castle and the town were connected, of course; the town supported the castle, the castle protected the town, boys and girls from the town frequently ended up working and living at the castle when they were grown, and so on. But for a nondescript carpenter to walk up the road to the castle was unheard of. They had their own carpenters.
Well, nondescript to other people. That was part of the Secret. Marian didn't entirely understand what the Secret was yet, but she knew there was one. And part of it was her father wanting to appear ordinary, instead of like the best, most skilled, most talented, most wonderful person in the world, which he was. Aside from her mother, of course, but her mother worried about it less.
Marian might not have worried about her father going up to the castle--after all, he could do anything--if it weren't for the conversation she'd overheard last night, when her parents thought she was already asleep. She'd woken up thirsty and slipped downstairs, and slipped upstairs again afterwards without getting the drink of water she'd come searching for. She was still puzzling over what she'd heard, which hadn't been much, scraps and fragments.
"--think he'll keep his word. And there's no help for it, Leandra. Given his resources, even if we left this minute, he'd have found us by morning. Either he's honestly grateful or he isn't. But I think he is. He'd have been done for if I hadn't interfered."
"It doesn't sound as though there's much choice. And we've never heard ill of the bann."
"No. We'll have to trust to hope. Even so, I want you to be prepared. If it is a trap, they'll come looking for you and the children next. Thank the Maker they've shown no signs of taking after me."
There was a silence, and then her father's voice again--but with a new note in it, something she'd never heard before and couldn't identify. "Oh, my love. No."
"We always knew it was a possibility. Given your family and mine, at least one of them almost had to be. It's all right, my darling. I'm not afraid."
A short bark of a laugh. "No, you're fearless, always have been. I have to be afraid for both of us. What happened? When?"
"Just this morning. I found Bethany holding a ball of ice in her hands, playing with it like a toy. She held it out to me and asked me if I thought it was pretty. What could I say? I told her it was, very pretty, but she shouldn't do it again without talking to you, and especially not in front of anyone else. I tried not to frighten her."
"I'll have to train her. The sooner she learns control, the safer she'll be. I should be glad it's the quietest of our three if it's to be any of them, but...my poor girl. Leandra, forgive me."
"There's nothing to forgive. I wouldn't change anything about you, anything about our life. I chose this with open eyes and I have no regrets." There was the sound of movement, and her mother's voice was muffled, probably against her father's chest. Marian's parents embraced each other a great deal, she'd noticed. "We'll weather this as we've weathered everything else, together."
And that was it. The conversation had moved on to the things her parents would say when they were holding each other, and she didn't need to hear that, so she'd left. Whatever the Secret was, Bethany was part of it. Marian couldn't imagine how--Bethany was so little--but she knew worry when she heard it, and wanted to know why.
But Mother wouldn't answer any questions, even if Marian did ask. Father might, she was better at getting around Father than she was Mother (no one could get around Mother), but Father wasn't here. Not yet.
Marian watched the road for as long as she could, but there were no signs of him, and finally she lost patience and climbed off the rooftops, shimmying down to a stack of crates and clambering down and returning home. It didn't take long; home was just a few houses along. It was a small building for five, but kept scrupulously clean of dirt and dust and wood shavings. That last was the most difficult, because it was so easy to track in sawdust and the like from Father's workshop, which was one reason why they were supposed to keep out. That, and the sharp, dangerous (and therefore fascinating) tools kept inside. More than once, Marian had cut herself on her father's carving knife, or the saw. It'd upset her parents much more than it'd upset her; indulging curiosity was more than worth the blood-price she'd paid, and pain faded.
"There you are," came her mother's voice as soon as she stepped through the door. "And barefoot again! Sometimes I wonder why I bother to make you shoes at all."
Marian found herself swept up in a sudden tight embrace, which made her feel a bit guilty, because it meant her mother actually had been worried about her instead of just annoyed that she wasn't where she was supposed to be again. She should have thought of that; if Mother was worried about Bethany and their father, it probably would extend to the rest of them as well. "I was watching for Father," she explained, because surely that excused anything.
"He'll be here when he's here; staring at the road won't bring him back any faster," Mother said tersely. "Now go clear the kitchen table, as I asked you to do this morning, remember?"
Marian sighed and did as she was told, though every time she heard a sound that could possibly be someone opening the front door she stopped her chore and ran to check, just in case.
When Father did return, however, it wasn't the creak of floorboards or the door that alerted her. It was the bark of a dog. Or yelp, rather--it couldn't be a very old dog, not with a pitch as high as that. Marian wasn't the only one it summoned. All the family came running, and stopped to stare at the spectacle in the doorway, where Father stood wearing a bemused grin and holding a large brown puppy in his arms.
"That's a mabari." It was Carver who piped up first, smug at his ability to recognize the animal; Bethany stayed quiet, a step behind him, watching with wide eyes. "Only nobles get those. Are we nobles now?"
Mother hid a smile behind her hand, though Marian couldn't see what was funny. Father only shook his head. "No, but I did a favor for a noble, and this is how he's chosen to reward me." He stepped forward into the room, walking over to Mother and kissing her cheek. "This and a number of other complications, mind."
Marian bounced on her heels a little with excited curiosity, and the motion seemed to draw the pup's attention. "Did you rescue him?" she asked. She loved stories of fighting, and any games of pretend she played generally involved a number of dramatic rescues from certain death, in rapid succession. If she wasn't the hero of the story, her father was. "Were there bandits? Did you fight them all off?"
Father laughed. "No, Marian." He placed a hand on top of her head and ruffled her hair. When any other adult did that it annoyed her, but from Father it was all right. "I ran across him by chance in the forest. He'd been hunting and gotten separated from his party, and was cornered by a bear. I helped him fight off the bear."
Marian's eyes narrowed, because it sounded to her as though he was leaving something out, but just then the puppy barked and caught her attention. Their eyes locked, blue meeting brown, and all at once the mabari was wriggling so furiously that there was no holding him. He half-slipped, half-jumped out of Father's arms and ran to Marian's feet, barking and jumping up, front paws batting against her shins.
Curious, Marian bent down on her knees to have a closer look. The puppy jumped up again, trying to scrabble onto her lap, using her knees for purchase, and she laughed. Since he was having trouble coming to her, she went to him, and lay down on the floor to look him face to face. The mabari immediately started licking her face; Marian was enchanted and wrapped her arms around him, laughing.
"Looks like he's decided who he wants," Father said with evident amusement.
"It's not fair!" Carver burst out, almost in tears. "Marian gets everything, just because she's oldest. It's not fair!"
Marian was only vaguely aware of Mother taking Carver aside, of Bethany trying to comfort her twin, who was having none of it and on the verge of a tantrum. The puppy was taking all of her attention. Something was changing inside her, twining itself around this new creature who was suddenly part of her life. She didn't examine it too closely, just laughed again as she scratched behind his ears, surprised that she already knew exactly how to do it, what he would like. He licked her face again with a rough tongue, looking up at her with absolute trust and devotion, and Marian knew she would never be the same again. Already it was unthinkable that there was a time when she and the mabari hadn't been together, unthinkable that there could ever be a time when they wouldn't be together.
Mother was handling the twins, but Father was looking down at Marian and the mabari, and finally got down on his knees next to them. "He's your responsibility now, you know," he said. "You'll have to take care of him, train him, everything."
"He's not my responsibility, he's my friend," Marian retorted.
"Believe me, my daughter, loved ones can still be responsibilities." His voice was wry but not cynical. "Though you have a point. The bond between a mabari and its owner is a special one, something that goes beyond affection. He's imprinted on you; he's yours for life."
The mabari barked reproachfully, and Marian laughed. "I think he said I'm his, not the other way around."
Father chuckled. "I wouldn't be at all surprised."
Despite the amusement, there was still a tension in his shoulders, and Marian wasn't so distracted that she didn't pick up on it. "There's more, isn't there?" she asked. It wasn't really a question. Father grimaced, reluctance to answer written on his face.
Mother, her expression resigned, looked up. "Again?"
Father nodded. "It'd be prudent, I'm afraid. I trust the bann, but others might...have questions. Easier for all if we're not here to answer them. You know how political pressure can cause difficulties."
Mother nodded in return, clearly not surprised, efficient as ever. "The groundwork's already laid, with stories of an invalid relative up in Highever. I can start spreading the usual word and we can be gone in a week. Unless you think it should be sooner?"
"No, let's make it look as normal as possible. We should have some time."
It was Bethany, not distracted by the puppy or her own misery, who caught the implications of this first. "We're leaving home?" She didn't sound happy, and Carver scowled even more.
Mother caught her younger daughter in a fierce hug, and Marian suddenly remembered the conversation she'd overheard the previous night, the fact that there was now something unusual about Bethany. She still couldn't tell what, but the awareness of it was there in Mother's actions, that slight extra bit of tension. "We'll find a new place to live, darling. So long as we're all together, that's home. That's what's important, always, the five of us." She looked, very deliberately, at her husband and other two children, as though determined to imprint this fact into them.
Marian considered. A few hours ago, she would have hated that idea of leaving Redcliffe. She liked the rocky terrain around the town they lived in, the lake she was determined someday to sail across, the castle at the top of the hill that she could invent stories about. They'd moved around a good deal already in her life, but they'd been here for a few years and she knew her parents had hoped to stay permanently. She couldn't see how doing a favor for a noble meant they needed to leave.
But it wasn't so important now, somehow. Her family would be with her, after all. Maybe the next place they'd go would be better. It didn't matter; she and her dog could go anywhere. "Six of us," she said. "There's six of us now."
Mother's smile grew. "So there are. We'll make a home wherever we are, all six of us."
As the mabari pup wiggled happily, Marian decided that sounded fine to her.