Daniela had calculated it would take her three days ride to reach Mara, the capital of Varall. She had packed enough food to last for that long and had enough money to buy lodging for her and Oblivion on the way. She had it all planned out in her head and everything went to according to plan. No one questioned Daniela's appearance as a boy, although she did get some strange looks from people at the inns. Although she was taller than average for a woman, which gave her an advantage, she was incredibly slender. Luckily she assumed the onlookers came to the conclusion that she was just a very feminine looking boy as she wasn’t disturbed on her first or second night in the inns.
She kept her head down, took her meals in her room and left as early as she could in the morning to avoid being remembered.
On the afternoon of the third day, the towers of Mara began to appear on the horizon and Daniela gasped with joy. Her goal was almost within her grasp, she thought she could smell Felix’s clothes and feel his arms around her waist.
“I’m going to find you,” she breathed as she urged Oblivion on towards the city.
When she reached the gates the sun was reaching the end of its descent. She rode Oblivion slowly into the city, watching the bustle of people around her with wide eyes. Even in the dying orange light everything was a burst of colour, brighter than anything Daniela had ever seen before.
Then her eyes caught sight of a young boy reaching into the pocket of a drunken man who had collapsed in the gutter. Pickpockets. Daniela’s eyes went straight to her saddlebag and she kept an eye on it until she reached a tavern that doubled as an inn closer to the centre of the city.
She took Oblivion around to the tiny stables behind the back of the inn, looking around for someone to help.
“Hello?” She called, searching the seemingly empty yard. “I need to stable my horse here tonight and rent a room for myself. Is there anyone there?” She shook her head, disheartened by the fact there was no one there. What was she going to do now?
Then she caught sight of the pair of boots resting on a chair. The boots were attached to a pair of legs that disappeared into the end stable. She approached the shoes, Oblivion close behind her, and as the man came into view she could clearly see that he was asleep. The man wasn’t just sleeping on the job, he was also filthy. Mud covered his clothes, skin and hair, embedded in the wrinkles on his face.
Daniela had no idea what to do. She would feel bad about waking him but she couldn’t just leave Oblivion. Someone might think she’d been abandoned at take her. She took a deep breath, deciding if she was going to do this she was going to do it properly.
Kicking the chair out from under the sleeping man’s feet she shouted, “oi! Wake up! I need someone to stable my horse.”
The man woke with a jolt as his feet hit the hard cobbles of the floor. His eyes flew open to reveal bloodshot whites and black irises.
“What’s ‘hat for?” He spluttered. “Ye upstart little wretch.”
“Don’t you call me names,” Daniela said in her strongest man’s voice, squaring her shoulders and trying to look as big as she could. “Or I’ll report you for sleeping on the job.” She knew she’d got him cornered so threw Oblivion’s reigns at him. “I’m going in to find a room for tonight. I’ll be back out to make sure she’d properly fed, watered and rubbed down, is that understood?”
“Yes young ‘un,” the stable-hand replied, taking the reigns and leading Oblivion to the middle of the yard where a trough of water stood. Daniela watched as the man began to take off the horse tack with care and attention. Satisfied that Oblivion would be well looked after she walked into the tavern through the back door.
The room was dark and smoky from the fire and Daniela spluttered a cough as she worked her way towards the bar. She identified the man she thought was the landlord and approached him.
“Excuse me sir,” she said. “I’ve just put my horse in your stables and I’m looking for a room to stay in tonight.”
“Very good young master,” the landlord said. “I have a small room free if that would suit.”
Daniela said that would be perfect, hoping she had enough money left to afford the room.
The landlord signed her onto the register and offered to show her up to her room.
“Actually before I go up I want to ask a question.”
“Where should I go if I want to join the army? To go fight against Kerya?”
“What’s a little runt like you doing going to fight against one of the strongest countries in the world?” A stranger commented from the barstool next to me. “You don’t look like you could carry a sword, let alone fight with one.”
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t pick fights with my customers Master Payne. I’m sorry about him,” the landlord said, turning to Daniela. “He doesn’t mean what he says.”
“Don’t tell me what I do and don’t mean,” the stranger said boldly, turning to face Daniela so she got a good look at him. His hair was a messy ginger and his skin was pale, which made him look even more ginger. He was wiry, not a big build but there were clearly muscles under his shirt. But the thing that stood out most were his eyes which were emerald green and were staring right at a stunned Daniela. “Talk to me,” he said, beckoning her over.
“You don’t have to master,” the landlord said.
“I’m alright,” she replied. “Thank you for your help.”
The man gestured to the barstool next to him and Daniela perched on it, trying to mimic his posture.
“So what’s your name then skinny?” He asked, picking up his tankard and taking a swig. “You’re not from round here.”
“I’m Daniel,” she replied smoothly.
“That sounds a bit posh. I think Danny suits you better.”
“Then what’s your name?”
“Ronan,” the man replied. “And now I’ve introduced myself it’s time for me to buy you a drink and ask why you’re so interested in joining the army.”