“I just want to protect my country against invasion from an external force,” Daniela insisted three tankards of ale later. “What’s wrong with a bit of patriotism?”
“Nothing is wrong with it,” Ronan replied. “All I’m saying is that patriotism isn’t your motivation. You’re not a big guy so you’re clearly trying to prove something by joining up to fight. Maybe you lost a tavern brawl or your brother is a bully. Am I right?”
“You’re way off,” Daniela laughed, taking another sip from her tankard. She had never had ale before but she’d decided she liked it. It made her feel more confident and happy and everything became a little blurry around the edges. “But what I want to know is why you haven’t signed up?” She said, poking her companion hard in the shoulder.
“Yes you Ronan Payne. What’s stopping you from fighting for your country?”
“My survival instincts,” he joked. “And I don’t fancy being taken out to the frontline to end up being stabbed to death either by a sword or a spear or some other equally painful weapon.”
“You’re such a girl!” Daniela sniggered. “You’re just scared you might get killed.”
“Any sensible man would be scared of that. Therefore, you clearly aren’t a sensible man because you’re willing to risk your life to save a country that won’t thank you for it. We probably won’t even win the war. Kerya is far stronger and better equipped than us. They’ve been fighting wars non-stop for the last 200 years while we’ve been sitting around planting crops and raising cattle.”
“Hey!” Daniela protested. “I come from a farm so don’t insult my profession.”
“If it’s such a noble profession then why are you trying to become a soldier?”
“I think we’ve talked too much about me,” Daniela said, still in enough control to know when she didn’t want a total stranger prying too deeply into her background. “You have hardly said a word about yourself all evening. It’s your turn.”
“My turn for what?”
“To spill. Come on. Who is Ronan Payne?”
“He’s a city boy from the wrong side of the tracks. His mother wants him to make good but he can’t be bothered to put in the effort.”
“Stop messing me around,” Daniela laughed. “Tell me the truth.”
“That is the truth,” Ronan insisted. “My father was a down-and-out who drank himself to death soon after I was born. As a teenager I stole to keep my mother and me fed and I haven’t been able to stop stealing since.”
“You still don’t believe me?”
“Well you hear about people like that but you never actually meet someone who’s life has been that bad!”
“Not in the country you won’t,” Ronan laughed. “But in the city there are plenty others like me, most of them in this room.”
“What?” Daniela exclaimed, suddenly alert. “You mean the people in this room are thieves.”
“Sure. This isn’t exactly the nicest part of town. Not that a farm boy from the country like you would know that. Stick with me,” he said downing the last of his ale. “I’ll make sure you’re alright.”
“How can I trust you?”
“Easy. I like you Danny,” he said, clapping Daniela on the shoulder. “You’re a funny guy. That’s why I’m going to help you find where to sign up for the army and until then I’ll make sure no one messes with you.”
“What’s the catch?” Daniela asked, remembering the stories of people who made poor innocent girls, like her, trust them before cruelly raping and murdering them. But she’d forgotten for a moment that Ronan thought she was a boy.
“No catch. All I want from you is friendship.”
“I can do that,” Daniela said.
“Then it’s settled,” Ronan said holding out his hand. “Welcome to Mara, Danny Gilbert.”
“Thank you Ronan Payne,” she responded, taking the offered hand and shaking it warmly. “Let's hope I get to know you a lot better.”
“Right then Master Payne, it’s time for you to be heading home.” The landlord came over to the pair on the other side of the bar, his eyebrows raised when he saw the level of intimacy between the two boys.
“I’ve told you before, you can’t tell me what I can and can’t do. Besides I have nowhere to go. You can’t just kick me out.”
“I think you’ll find I can Ronan. You’ve cost me too much money in the past for me to let you stay.”
“I thought you said you lived with your mother,” Daniela questioned.
“I don’t any more. She kicked me out for being a bad egg.”
“You can’t kick him out,” Daniela said to the landlord. “Where will he go?”
“That’s not my concern,” the landlord replied. “Once people leave my tavern that’s it, I don’t want to hear about their problems.”
“Then he can share with me,” Daniela said without thinking. The ale had clearly muddled her head more than she was aware of. Her mouth was beginning to work independently of her brain.
“But there’s only one bed in-“
“We’ll manage,” Daniela insisted. “What do you say Ronan?”
“Thank you,” he mumbled in reply, speechless at the generosity of this strange small man he had just met. “As long as you’re sure.”
“That’s what friends do. They help each other out when they need to.”
“Then I happily accept,” Ronan said, clanking his tankard against Daniela’s. “To friendship.”
“Friendship,” she replied, swigging the last of her ale in one large gulp and almost choking, sending Ronan into fits of laughter as her face grew bright red.