A/n Heyyy long time no see! Or whatever the online equivalent is of that... Anyway I promised I'd have part II up soon enough and well, here it is! I don't have much to say except this is where it gets interesting :). Enjoy!
I didn't know when I had fallen asleep, but it seemed like it was only a moment later when Raven shook me awake. I shot up straight, humiliated that I had fallen asleep in a cart full of strangers.
"Are we there yet?" I asked groggily.
"Almost," she answered, laughing quietly at me. "Look out the window, I think you'll like it."
I blinked the sleep from my eyes and leaned over her, peering through the hole in the canvas. I heard myself gasp in amazement at the beautiful landscape. Sometime during my nap, we had left the forest, and I couldn't believe how scenic the land had become. The trees were completely gone, replaced by rolling hills covered in tall green hay. Every so often there were clusters of white dots that I guessed to be sheep or cows. Beyond it all I could see the cloud-topped profile of a vast mountain. It was much bigger than the one that stood behind the wall at home, but as I gazed up at it I realized it had to be the same one, even though it was different. The forest was the same way. I stopped my train of thought abruptly, reminding myself of the hysterics I had had just that morning. Besides, trying to understand this world still gave me a headache.
"Isn't it pretty?" Raven prodded.
I nodded, grinning, and turned back to the window. I noticed now that there were other travelers on the road, a few on horses, some in carts like ours, and most on foot. It was getting louder, too; I could faintly hear shouting and music from up ahead. Looking ahead of the cart, I saw a bunch of tents spread out in a field. It looked crowded.
"Is that it up ahead?"I asked eagerly.
Raven nodded again. I could tell she was pleased at my excitement.
It was a few more minutes before we reached the market, just long enough for me to start feeling nervous about being near all of these people. What would they do if they found out who I was?
I blinked in the bright sunlight as I stepped out of the cart. Feeling a hand on my shoulder, I turned around. Rowan stood beside me, looking grave as always.
"Remember what I told you," he reminded me. "Don't get yourself into trouble."
I couldn't resist an eye roll. This guy really needed to relax sometimes. "Yes, Rowan, I remember. Stop worrying so much."
He frowned slightly and stalked away, not answering me. Raven strolled over, both of us watching him leave.
"Is he always this grumpy or is it just because I'm here?" I worried. A part of me felt irritated at his frigid behavior, but the guilty part of my conscience kept reminding me that I had dropped into his life quite rudely.
"He's gone through a lot and taken it very hard," she reassured me. "It changed him a long time before you arrived. I have to say, though," she added as an afterthought, "I actually think the reason he frowns so much more when you're nearby is because he secretly wants to smile. I can tell he doesn't dislike you nearly as much as you think." She grinned and pulled on my hand. "Come on, we should hurry or we'll miss out on all the best goods."
I followed her reluctantly, still pondering what she had said. My thoughts were soon pushed aside, however, to make room for the nerves that grew tighter as we drew closer to the crowds. I took a deep breath, mentally preparing myself for the questions and stares that were sure to come my way.
Nobody noticed me in the first few minutes after we entered the market. I guess it was foolish of me to think everyone would instinctively know I was an outsider. It wasn't like I looked much different from them. I relaxed a little, letting myself enjoy the new experience.
The farmers' market was even more crowded than it had looked from the outside, and loud, too. A lot of the merchants seemed to know their customers pretty well, because everyone was chatting or haggling good-naturedly over prices. At the far end, I could see a small band playing strange old fashioned instruments, including a lute, some sort of giant wooden flute, a long pipe that sounded sort of like a bassoon, bagpipes, and a cornet. The instruments were all so contrasting in sound, yet I found myself swaying to the lively music they were producing. I had never heard anything so beautiful.
I leaned towards Raven, speaking loudly so she could hear me above the ruckus. "This is so freaking awesome!"
She grinned. "Do you like it then?"
I nodded enthusiastically. "It's so different from anything I've ever seen before! In the city we just went to the grocery store!"
Raven laughed, probably at the strangeness that was my world. It was ironic, considering how old fashioned her world was to me.
It wasn't until we made our first purchase that anyone noticed me.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Locke," Raven greeted the plump man standing behind his fruit stand.
"Hello there, Miss Raven." He replied, smiling. "Did you bring your brother with you today?"
"Yes. He's wandering around her somewhere." She rolled her eyes, and I giggled before I could help myself.
Mr. Locke's eyes widened curiously. "Who's this?"
"My cousin Alexa," Raven lied flawlessly. "I have grown tired of living alone so often, so Rowan brought her back the last time he came home."
The merchant frowned. "But I thought—"
"We're distantly related," she said firmly, her dark brown eyes suddenly hard. I blinked, stunned by the unexplained anger shown there. "And I would appreciate it if you would not bring up my past."
Mr. Locke looked down at his feet, turning red. "My apologies, Miss Raven. I would never try to offend you."
She smiled kindly, her eyes warm again. "I forgive you, sir. Now, we would like one of those large baskets of apples. I've been meaning to make a pie."
He grinned, relaxed again. "Sounds delicious. That will be 3 copper pieces."
Raven dropped the required coins into his palm, picked up one of the baskets of apples that stood on his table, and briskly walked away. I hurried after her.
"What was that about?" I asked, still bewildered by her mood swing.
"That? Oh, it was nothing for you to worry about. People like to gossip, that's all."
I frowned but chose not to pursue the subject further. Her attempt at nonchalance was too weak for me not to notice, but I couldn't understand what she would be hiding. It worried me a bit.
I walked between the stands with her for the next hour or so, at first fascinated by the bartering that took place. Slowly, though, I began to grow as bored as if I was in a regular grocery store. I stifled a yawn for the third time as Raven perused a few bolts of homespun cloth. For once she didn't notice.
"What do you think of this one?" she asked absently, pointing out a muted blue cotton.
"That's nice," I agreed after pulling myself out of my stupor. "Um, I think I might go get a closer look at the band. Is that okay with you?"
"Sure, of course!" she exclaimed. "Go have fun. Just make sure that my brother doesn't see you; he might throw a fit if he catches you alone."
I laughed and quickly made my getaway. The crowds were too packed for me to see where the band was, but I let my ears lead me. The music was so beautiful that I didn't realize until too late how much it was distracting me from where I was going. I was knocked back into reality by a sudden impact against my left side. With a shriek, I tumbled to the ground.
"Oh, excuse me!" A strange voice exclaimed. I sat up, my face flaming, and saw a hand encased in a brown leather glove reaching down to me. With a grimace, I ignored it and got up on my own. As I brushed the dirt off my dress, I looked up at the stranger. He was dressed in a dark blue shirt, brown vest, brown breeches, and knee high brown leather boots that matched his gloves. A wide brimmed brown hat was pulled low over his forehead, casting a shadow over his eyes. I peered closer at the shadow, but I couldn't make out the features there no matter how hard I tried.
"You ought to watch where you're going," he chastised me, his mouth pulling up at one corner.
I scowled rudely. Even though I knew it was partly my fault, this man still had no right to scold me like I was five years old. "It sure seemed like you were the one who ran into me."
The smirk shrank. "That is true. My apologies."
I grimaced again, this time in guilt. "No, it was my fault too. I'm sorry."Sighing, I bent down to pick up the bag of flour I had dropped in my fall. The stranger beat me to it, swooping down to toss it over his shoulder. He clutched his hat to his head with the other hand, preventing it from slipping off.
"Um, I need that..."I started to say.
"Am I not allowed to carry it for you?"he asked, smirking again.
I frowned. "Do you have a name?"
"I do." To my surprise, he started weaving his way through the crowd. I hurried after him.
"Mind telling me?"
"If I told you my name, you wouldn't feel any differently about me. Besides," he added, "I prefer to remain anonymous."
I raised an eyebrow, but refrained from comment. He would hardly have heard me anyway, in the midst of all this noise. Instead, I found myself focusing on the fringe of black hair poking out from under his hat. The way it brushed his shirt collar as he walked was mesmerizing.
After a while, he abruptly stopped and turned to me. After a moment I realized that we were standing only ten feet from the band. "How did you know?" I asked, my face caught between a smile and a frown. I knew I had no reason to trust this faceless man, yet he seemed so likeable that I couldn't resist his presence. His personality was almost magnetic.
"Know what? I just thought you might enjoy hearing the players a little more clearly." He moved further away, into an empty, shadowed spot next to the stage. Hesitantly, I followed him.
"Please tell me who you are," I pleaded. The suspense was killing me. "At least show your face."
The stranger shook his head slowly. "No. But I would like to hear your name, my lady."
"That's not fair!" I refused.
"Ah, but you've already lost," he smiled. "I've seen your face. It's only proper that you introduce yourself."
I laughed in spite of myself. His smile was too enchanting. "Alexa," I gave in. "My name is Alexa."
"That's a strange name if I ever heard one," he commented.
"Well, I'm a strange girl," I muttered sarcastically. If he only knew.
The man merely smiled and turned his head to listen to the music. I copied his movement. The band was playing a heartbreakingly slow song now, quite a contrast from the boisterous pieces they had played earlier. I smiled at the sound of the lute. It was much better in person than in any recording my music teacher had ever played.
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
I tilted my head to see the stranger looking at me again and nodded, murmuring one of my favorite quotes. "Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."
"Oh, nothing," I stammered. "I...read it in a book somewhere."
The man smiled softly then and reached out to lightly stroke my cheek. "Pretty and intelligent. We've hardly met and you already fascinate me."
I blushed, all of my thoughts, good and bad, flying out the window. Just as I was trying to find my voice again, however, I felt a hand clamp down on my upper arm.
"What do you think you're doing?!" a familiar voice roared in my ear. I whirled around, gasping.
"I told you to stay with Raven!" he shouted, his hand pressing tighter into my flesh. "We're going home, now!"
"Ouch! Rowan stop, that hurts!" I glared at him and tried to wrench my arm from his grasp, but he was too strong.
The stranger reached toward us. "Step away from her!" he ordered. "I started the conversation, she didn't mean any harm!"
"You stay out of this!" Rowan barked at him, glowering fiercely. "I don't know who you are, but if you ever come near Alexa again I'll kill you, I swear!"
"Rowan!" I snapped. His behavior was making people stare. There was hardly even time for me to glance back at my stranger in apology before he stormed off, dragging me behind him. I struggled against him the whole way, but I wasn't able to break from his grasp until we had nearly reached the exit.
"What the hell, Rowan!" I yelled, rage bubbling up inside of me. "I'm a big girl you know, I can take care of myself!"
"Really?" he snapped back angrily. "I don't think wandering off alone and talking to shifty men qualifies as taking care of yourself! You could have been hurt!"
"How would you know?" I cried. "You think I know nothing about the world, well, I've dealt with much worse shit in my life than strange men. And he was nice, for the record. Much nicer than you, and you're barely more than a stranger to me, either!"
"What is going on?" Raven marched over, her face twisted in anxiety.
"Why weren't you keeping a better eye on her?"Rowan roared again, rounding on his sister.
"Calm down, Rowan, you're making a spectacle of yourself!" she hissed angrily. "And besides, I let Alexa walk around by herself. There are girls her age that are already married and mothers. She's sensible enough to make the right decisions."
"Oh, like speaking to a man whom I've never even seen here before? That's sensible!" I winced at the biting sarcasm in his remark, but enough was enough.
"Shut up, Rowan!" I snapped. He clenched his teeth and fumed at me. "I don't appreciate you treating me like a leper, and then suddenly thinking that you can control my every move. If you're going to be like that, then I'll just move out. But I swear on all that is holy, if you shout at me one more time today, I will slap you so hard you'll bruise. So lay off!" With a final frustrated "humph", I stalked out of the marketplace toward the road. It was a long time before the other two followed me.
Later that night, as I lay sulking in my room, Raven came upstairs. I rolled over, pretending I hadn't heard her. It wasn't her I was mad at, but I still didn't want to see anyone right now. All I had been thinking about since we had left the marketplace was the mysterious stranger, and how I would never see him again. I was even beginning to irritate myself; I didn't want to do the same to everyone around me. Actually, I wouldn't mind irritating Rowan at this point.
"Alexa, please don't ignore me," Raven said as she entered the loft. Her voice was firm, and once again she reminded me of Margie. Sighing, I sat up to face her.
"Yes?" I answered, trying to be polite. After all, she had taken me into her home and under her wing. I owed it to her.
Raven walked over and sat on the mattress next to me. "What happened at the market today was inexcusable."
"I know," I mumbled. "I'll never leave your side again."
Raven frowned in confusion. "Actually, I was talking about Rowan."
I blushed. "Oh."
"It's true, you weren't being very wise when you started talking to a man you've never met, but he should have controlled his temper."
I snorted. "You think?" Raven raised an eyebrow, and I bit my lip. "Sorry. Continue."
She smiled slightly. "I just came up here to say, he only did it for your own safety. As I've said before, a lot has happened to him over the years. It just makes him more protective of those he cares about. So, since I know he's too stubborn to do so himself, I've come to apologize, Alexa. Please don't leave."
A lump rose in my throat. "Oh, Raven, I never actually meant it when I said that. No matter how much I fight with Rowan I couldn't leave this place, unless you kicked me out, that is. I already love it here, and you're a great friend. I don't want to lose that."
Raven smiled widely and wrapped me in a tight hug. After a second's hesitation, I returned the favor. When we let go, she stood up. "Well, you should get some rest. We all need to sleep, I think, and we'll be getting up early tomorrow."
"If you're going to live here, Alexa, I expect you to help with chores and keeping up the animals like everyone else." She winked. "Good night."
"Good night." After she had descended the ladder, I blew out my candle, alone once more.
A/n Ooooh who could this masked man be? Intriguing though, isn't he. For some reason the entire time I was writing this chapter I imagined him looking like D'Artagnan of Three Musketeers fame, but let me assure you that is NOT what he looks like. Not that D'Artagnan isn't a good looking man, but he's too old for this story. ;)
Review please???? I really like seeing review alerts in my inbox. :)