The next few days passed quickly for Hope; she adjusted to her schedule of long rides in the mornings, often accompanied by Isabel and Tudz, and spending her afternoons training with Sarrasi and the men of the guard. She even began to enjoy meals in the Great Hall, surrounded by the colorful goblins (many of whom did indeed begin to wear bits of nature on their garb). She avoided (or more often ignored) Marak whenever possible after The Incident. When she found herself alone with Marak she would make poor excuses about needing to feed Pegasus (who was becoming very fat).
Marak, although saddened by Hope's avoidance of him, had many matters of the state to occupy him. He had always been very involved in the running of his country- unlike some of his predecessors he not only supplied raw power the kingdom running, he actively participated in all parts of the government; holding court every day, attending meetings with his advisors, helping to organize the King's Guard, and dealing with any emergencies that struck his Kingdom.
Hope threw down her bow. "This is dreadful! I'm already better than all of your men. No offense meant," she added quickly. "I just can't keep practicing drawing and shooting my arrow at a target, I will simply go mad!" she yelled as she stalked over towards Sarrasi several days later.
"I can't even go out and hunt something, because all of the hunters must hunt outside of the kingdom." She turned pleading eyes towards Sarrasi. "Please let me practice sword fighting. I've been practicing the drills for three days. I'm ready to fight someone."
Sarrasi chuckled and shook her head. Hope's tantrums were becoming famous around the kingdom, and this one did not faze the King's Captain. "You know, there may be someone who can teach you sword play in the kingdom. He doesn't come very often, but if I make a special case…"
Hope smiled triumphantly. "I knew I would eventually wear you down."
Sarrasi smiled. "You may not thank me when you find out who your instructor will be."
"How could I dislike someone who is teaching me something useful?" She asked.
She was proven wrong the next afternoon. As she was stretching and warming up with the sentries she saw Sarrasi and Marak walk into the practice courts, deep in conversation. Hope frowned at the prospect of speaking to her husband, but she was dying to know who was going to teach her swordplay. She walked tentatively over to the pair.
"Good afternoon, Sarrasi." She smiled at the petite goblin before glaring at Marak. "Marak," she acknowledged him icily, barely inclining her head in acknowledgement.
Marak barely concealed a smile and tried to keep his face as serious as Hope's.
"Hello, Hope," Sarrasi said brightly, grinning evilly. "This is to be your new instructor."
Hope looked around. "Who?"
"Marak of course! He is one of the best swordsmen in the realm, and he is the only one who does not fear the King's Wife Charm. The snake will never bite the King." Sarrasi smiled winningly at Hope. "Its quite an honor to have the King as your trainer. He has a very busy schedule. Good luck!"
Hope stared, aghast, at the retreating captains back. Slowly she turned towards Marak. "You did this," she hissed angrily. "You know I've been avoiding you, so you show up here- to my refuge!"
"I simply agreed to help teach you. I have no interest in ambushing you," he said mildly. "You know, I used to be the captain of the King's guard, so I believe that it was originally my place of 'refuge'," he drawled.
She glared. "There isn't anyone else in the kingdom who can teach me?"
He smiled. "I'm afraid not."
She threw her arms in the air and stalked over towards the practice swords. "Let's just start."
"Actually, we won't be starting with actual swords yet. First we will practice some drills without the weapon. No, don't give me that look, we'll use swords later today."
Hope was sure, without a doubt, that this was the most arduous afternoon of her life so far. Marak pushed her to her physical limits, which she began to realize was not very far. And she had to put up with her know-it-all, albeit polite husband.
By the time the afternoon was coming to a close, and Marak had finally let her hold a wooden sword, she was ill-tempered and wanted nothing more than to beat Marak with that sturdy piece of wood.
Unfortunately, Hope could barely block his blows, let alone make offensive attacks of her own. The day ended after Hope threw her sword at Marak (who noted that knife throwing had indeed improved her aim) and stomped off cradling an injured wrist.
Marak sighed as he watched his wife's exit. Sarrasi sidled closer to him. "That went well."
Marak raised an eyebrow. "She tends to throw things when she gets mad."
"At least she only threw her sword at you after the lesson was almost over," Sarrasi said consolingly. "She did spent an entire afternoon with you. One might call that progress."
Isabel tried in vain to concentrate on the page before her. She greatly appreciated Tudz's help learning the goblin tongue, she really did, but just now she was exhausted at staring at squiggly lines that supposedly made up the written language.
"Its no use, Tudz. I'm hopeless. I'm never going to be able to read goblin," she groaned as she pushed her strawberry blonde curls out of her eyes and glared at her language instructor. "Goblins will point and stare, and say, 'Look at that poor girl. Always lost because she never even learned to read street signs.'"
Tudz chuckled. "My dear Isabel, you have already learned more goblin in a few weeks than I had learned in my first year of English lessons. Just because you are learning the goblin alphabet at a normal pace does not mean that you are hopeless. You just need to keep practicing."
"Can't we just take a small break?"
He raised his eyebrow. She rolled her eyes at him and picked up her quill, muttering something under her breath about new a career as a slave driver.
As Isabel continued to write out the alphabet Marak knocked on the open doorway. "May I join the language class?"
"Only if you let me have a break. Slave master Tudz wants to me practice until my hand falls off every day," she jokingly complained, putting down her quill.
"You're lucky that goblin has a phonetic alphabet. But then again, you'll have to memorize all of our symbols as well," Marak smiled sympathetically at the young girl.
Marak studied at the pair. When he had asked Tudz to care for Hope's younger sister in the clearing that first night, Marak had been pleasantly surprised at how well the unlikely pair had gotten along. While Marak had tended to her sister, Isabel had followed Tudz around the castle.
Tudz, instead of being irked about his shadow, had taken her under her wing and introduced her all over the castle, encouraging her questions and even offering to teach her goblin.
"I'm sorry that I haven't had much time to see you. How have the last few days been? I can see that you have moved on to the written language," he picked up the sheet in front of her. "This is very good!"
Isabel smiled. "Thank you, your Highness."
"Please, call me Marak."
She nodded. "How is Hope this afternoon?"
"She's back to her old regimen of avoiding me whenever possible," he sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. "It seems like I am going to have a very quiet marriage."
Isabel laughed. "I guarantee you, Marak, that you will not have a quiet marriage. Not with my sister as a wife."
"Hmm, I can hardly wait," Marak teased as he stood up, stretching out his wings. "I just wanted to check on your progress. If you keep working on those letters, you may be ready to start attending classes with the first year pages in a few weeks. You've picked up the spoken language so well."
Her eyes widened. "Really? And then I could be a page, like Tudz?"
"Some day, young one. Tudz, make sure your charge gets some sleep tonight."
Marak turned to walk out the door.
"She loves sticky buns."
"I'm sorry?" Marak turned around to face Isabel.
"Hope loves sticky buns in the morning," Isabel repeated patiently. "If you are looking for a way to 'woo' my sister, you would be surprised at how far bringing her pastries in the morning will get you."
"Thank you for the advice. Good night."
Marak slowly walked back to his chambers, hoping that he had given enough time to Hope that she was already asleep in bed. He knew that he made her uncomfortable; he just hoped that she would overcome her distress of him someday. He didn't want to push her too far, so he simply didn't push at all and allowed her the privacy that she wanted.
He was surprised to find that Hope was nowhere to be found in their rooms. He had assumed after the fencing fiasco that Hope would have stayed around the castle, but come to think of it, he hadn't seen her at dinner either.
Marak groaned as he looked ahead to a night searching for his lost wife; it would inevitably be a lengthy one. He went down to the stables and saddled his horse, realizing that if Hope wasn't in bed by now, she was probably wandering around lost outside of the castle.
He found her a little while afterwards in a small overhang along the edge of the valley wall. She was futilely trying to start a fire with a small pile of rubbish she had gathered and two stones.
Marak rode up to the entrance of the small overhang and dismounted.
"Hello, Hope," he said very quietly and very calmly, as if trying to soothe a frightened horse.
Hope sighed and threw down the rocks she was using to try and spark a fire. She sat down in a huff and glared at Marak.
"Come to gloat?" she asked scathingly.
"Gloat about what?" he asked tiredly as he sat down across from Hope. He snapped his fingers and the small pile of kindling burst into flames, lighting the small cave they sat in. Hope gave a start at the sudden appearance of flames, but welcomed their warmth; she hadn't realized that she'd been shivering before. "Look how much wood you've gathered! This is a difficult feat in the kingdom of stone." He beamed at her.
"I spent all afternoon gathering it, mostly along the main road," she said wearily, not sure whether she was being patronized or not. It had taken a very long time to collect that much wood.
"Are you planning on spending the night out here, or would you like to return to the castle with me?" Marak asked, staring at her across the fire.
"I'm never going back," Hope announced regally, raising her chin in defiance.
Marak sighed. "I thought that you were beginning to enjoy yourself," he said quietly, looking down at his hands. "It seemed like you were getting along with Sarrasi and the men of the King's Guard."
"They're alright as goblins go," she acknowledged, pulling her legs up to her chest. "It's you I can't seem to get rid of."
Marak chuckled. "So the only part of your new life that you disagree with is myself?" he asked.
"Among other things, you are the chief complaint," Hope said loftily, as her teeth chattered. She hadn't realized how cold it got outside of the castle.
Marak took off his cloak and passed it to her. "Can an evil goblin king at least give his cloak to a cold maiden?"
Hope glared at it for a moment before greedily snatching his cloak and wrapping herself in its warmth. She unconsciously closed her eyes and buried her nose in his smell- the smell of the woods and loam. "I don't think you're 'evil'," she said slowly. "I just don't like you. You're rude. And too polite," she sniffed.
He smiled. "Rude and overly polite? That is quite the accomplishment."
Her lips twitched in what might have been a smile. "It's just that you have this polite mask that you use with everyone. It's very intimidating. And you did kidnapped me," she added reproachfully.
Marak nodded seriously. "It's not a 'mask.' I was raised to treat everyone with honor and courtesy." Their eyes met and held across the fire. Hope felt color rise in her cheeks but couldn't break the eye contact.
"That includes your kidnapped brides?"
"I would like to point out that I did rescue you when you were injured. I hope that a daring rescue earns me some credit."
"Why didn't you just leave me to die?" she asked curiously. "Why take such interest in a thief?"
"I've waited a long time to find a wife. I wanted to find someone who I would be compatible with, who would be able to accept the goblins, who would see the adventure in her new life… a wife I could fall in love with," he added quietly.
"Unfortunately for you, you seem to have chosen wrongly," she said tartly. "Clearly there will be no falling in love."
Marak wanted to pull her up from her seat besides the fire and tell that it was too late for that- that he was quickly falling in love with her spirit and her tenacity and her love of life. He wanted to wrap his arms around his wife and finally kiss those luscious red lips of hers.
Instead Marak smiled, stood up and brushed off his pants. "I will not stop you from sleeping out of doors if you truly wish it, but I would encourage you to return with me. I'll even run you a bath and ring up for some food." Hope's stomach growled in response. He extended his hand towards her. "Please come home with me."
Hope sighed and reached for his hand to pull herself up. "Fine. But only because I'm cold and tired. I'll keeping looking for an escape tomorrow," she teased lightly.
Marak looked at her pityingly. "Hope, you know that-"
She cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Don't ruin my fun exploring," she said sadly. "I know that I'm probably doomed to remain here forever."
He shrugged and continued with a light tone. "Most wives traditionally start with the large doors located around the kingdoms."
"I am anything but traditional," she told him sternly. Then she grinned wryly. "And I've already tested all of those doors. They aren't very bright, are they?"
As they approached Marak's horse, Hope suddenly stopped. "You only brought one horse?" she asked skeptically.
"He can easily carry us both," he said delicately.
She groaned. "I'm too tired to argue," she mumbled as she got into the saddle. She sat forward stiffly Marak mounted, trying to touch him as little as possible. She quickly gave up when she realized that Marak was a good resting post, and promptly fell asleep. Marak tiredly guided them back to the castle, gently cradling his tired.
That was the first night of nightmares.
After Marak had put his wife to bed, written a few notes and responses for his advisors, and was just falling to sleep, he heard Hope mumble something in her sleep and start tossing in her sheets. Suddenly she let out a long cry.
Marak quickly stood up and tried to gently wake Hope up, wondering if he was ever going to get a good night's sleep. Her eyes flew open and when she saw him she began beating his chest with her arms and scratching at his face, yelling, "Let her go!" Marak grabbed her pummeling arms in an attempt to restrain her, feeling surprise wash over him. He thought the evening had gone reasonably well.
"Hope! Hope! It's Marak. Stop fighting!" Marak finally restrained her. She looked up into his face, confused. Her body went limp and she began crying.
Without thinking, Marak gathered his wife into his arms, smoothing back her hair, wiping tears away from her cheek with the edge of a blanket, and murmuring comforting words. To his surprise, instead of pushing him away, Hope pulled closer and sobbed into his shoulder.
"I'm sorry," she said a little while later, pulling away from him and wiping her eyes. "I didn't mean to hit you."
He rubbed at a scratch.
She rolled her eyes. "Or scratch you. I'm sorry."
"What was it about?" he asked, standing up to pour Hope a glass of water from a pitcher on the table.
She hesitated before answering. "I dreamed of the night my parents were killed."
"I'm sorry to hear that. What happened?" He asked sitting across from Hope on the bed.
"Nothing more than the usual," she said bitterly, staring at the glass in her hands. "My parents were honest folk. One day they were accused of thieving and that night soldiers walked into our camp and killed them in front of Isabel and I. Would have probably killed us too, but they didn't keep a very good watch on us, and we gave them the slip. They were good folk- my parents never stole a crust of bread in their lives. It was after that I attack that I met up with my brothers and they taught me the art of thievery."
"Have you had this nightmare before?"
"Every once in a while since they died… which was around five years ago," she said sadly.
"So young to lose both parents," Marak mused. They sat in silence for several minutes. Hope had never met either of Marak's parents, so she assumed they had passed on as well.
Hope broke the silence and sighed. "Now I'll never be able to get back to sleep. Will you tell me about your parents?"
And so these nights became story time. Whenever Hope would suffer from a nightmare, which happened three or four times a week, Marak would stay up late exchanging human and goblin tales with her. Although this made for a very tired king in the morning, Marak looked forward to these midnight spells more than any other part of his day.
Marak would tell her fanciful stories of ancient goblins and magic, while Hope would regale him with humorous tales from her wanderings. Even Hope found herself feeling much more amicable towards the polite king who dispelled her nightmares. Although she would never admit to it, she almost began looking forward to her evening terrors, and the prospect of undisturbed time with Marak.
During the day, Hope continued to have ambivalent feelings towards him. Sometimes she would smile and greet him, other times he would be met with a frown. Because she didn't know what to make of him, Hope continued to avoid him around the castle.
"Marak, will you tell me about the other races again?" Hope asked after she had finished crying one night. They were settled comfortably in front of the fire with piles of pillows and blankets.
Marak smiled. "Only if you agree to eat dinner with me tomorrow night."
Hope rolled her eyes. "I eat dinner with you every night."
"No, you eat dinner sitting next to me and ignoring me. I want you to come to dinner with me, talk to me, and leave with me."
"I talk to you! Sometimes," she admitted. "When I need you to pass me something," she grinned. When she saw that he wasn't going to relent she sat up straight and raised her arm. "I promise to speak to you at dinner tomorrow. I shall make no other guarantees."
Marak chuckled at her mock solemnity. "As you already know, the First Fathers created the goblin race, which pulls strength from the animals and critters of the world." He shook out his wings for emphasis. "They also created the dwarf race, which draws strength from the rocks and the earth. Scholars believe that in the beginning of time, the First Fathers also made other races, some infused with air or fire, others with the strength of plants and flowers. Although there are no records but fairytales of these creatures, I believe that they are all around us. As elementals. I've spent years studying them. But alas, their magic is lost to us."
"So you think the forest is alive?"
He chuckled. "Of course the forest is alive! Every plant and animal has life coursing through it."
"But I mean really alive- with thoughts and feelings?" Hope asked.
"I would like to believe that there are other races besides goblins, elves and dwarves. There just aren't very many of us."
The next day, as promised, after a long afternoon of sword practice, Hope was standing in her large closet frowning at her reflection in the full length mirror. She had tried to pick out something nice to wear for dinner with Marak, but her new wardrobe was so overwhelming. And she couldn't even figure out how to put half the dresses on!
She settled on a form fitting light green dress with wide sleeves. Small, green gems and pearls decorated the hems and neck. She thought it complimented her eyes, but she wasn't really good at those things.
Marak walked in to find her still staring at her reflection. "Ready for dinner, Hope?" His smiled at her as she swished her full skirts back and forth.
She met his eyes in the mirror. "Do you like it?" she asked nervously, fiddling with one of the sleeves.
"You look stunning." He admired the dress for a moment. "You should wear this necklace. It complements the emeralds." He picked up a delicate silver and green necklace that sparkled.
Hope gaped at him. "These are all emeralds?" she asked wondrously. "I'm wearing a fortune…"
Marak came to stand behind her as he brushed the thick red hair from her neck to fasten the necklace on. If his hands seem to linger on her neck, Hope gave no indication that she noticed.
They silently walked down to the great hall. Hope's hands never stilled; they fussed over her hair, fiddled with bracelets on her wrists, smoothed her skirts.
Just before the entrance hall, Marak stopped her and took her hand, gently massaging it with his own. "You seem nervous," he told her gently.
"Why should I be nervous?" she said lightly, shifting her weight. "I've eaten in the dining hall many times."
Marak raised an eyebrow. Hope rolled her eyes. "I'm hungry. Let's go."
Marak led Hope into the dining hall, her hand still clasped in his own. He led her to the front table.
He felt a tug on his arm. "Marak, why is everyone staring? This is as bad as my first meal in the hall."
"They are all excited to see us together."
"But they see us together every day," she persisted. Marak looked pointedly down at their clasped hand. Hope felt a blush spread across her cheeks.
Unexpectedly, someone (Hope later suspected Sarrasi) began clapping and shouting something. Hope crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the portion of the hall with whom she was now well acquainted; the King's Guard. They cheered and clapped even more because of it.
"What are they saying?" she demanded of Marak.
To her surprise he looked slightly embarrassed. "It's not important," he murmured.
Sarrasi sidled up to Hope's side. "They're begging for a kiss," she grinned mischievously.
"Oh, for goodness sake! Don't goblins have something better to think about?" she demanded.
"The Guardsmen have all placed bets on when our first kiss will be," he whispered quietly.
Before Hope could react to that new piece of information, Marak took her hand and looked down into her eyes. Hope felt her pulse quicken- he wouldn't kiss her now in front of everyone! He gave a flourishing bow over her hand and pressed a very loud kiss into her palm. He then grinned at his subjects, who let out a collective sigh of disappointment, and pulled out Hope's chair for her to sit in.
Hope shook her head, not sure whether to be amused or angry at Marak's antics. Dinner passed in cheerful blur. She was somewhat surprised by how easy it was to talk to Marak in front of all of the goblins- and by how much she enjoyed dinner. Both Marak and Sarrasi kept the evening dialogue light and witty.
Hope and Marak walked slowly back to their rooms. Marak noticed Hope's eyebrow's knitted in a frown.
"Did you enjoy dinner?" he asked as they walked into their rooms.
"Yes," she said slowly, drawing the word out.
"You don't look too thrilled about it," he pointed out.
She sighed unhappily. "I'm confused. I never thought that I would fit in here, let alone have friends. And now I have Sarrasi, and-" She gulped. "And you. I think I'm happy," she added glumly.
Marak laughed and pulled her into an embrace. "Only you could be forlorn about being happy."
"I guess so," she mumbled as she rested her head against his shoulder. "I just never expected to happy here."
He lifted her chin with his hand. "Now," he said very sternly. "Can I see a smile?"
She bared her teeth in a mockery of a grin. He chuckled. "I suppose that will have to do…" he drawled.
She looked up into his black, orb-like eyes and was startled to find so much emotion. Marak tightened his arms around her waist, half expecting Hope to pull away. But she didn't move. He smoothed back a lock of red hair from her face, his eyes questioning. She leaned into his hand.
He slowly bent his head and tenderly brushed his lips against her forehead.
Before he could make his way down to her beautiful, perfect mouth, someone burst loudly into the room. Several someones, in fact.
"Marak, come quickly!"
"Your highness, you won't believe what's just happened."
"Goblins! There are goblins out there in our woods."
It took the intruders several seconds before they absorbed their king's current position. Hope blushed and tried vainly to disentangle herself from Marak, who had no intention of letting her go, his arms locked around her waist.
"Sarrasi," Marak said sternly. "What is the meaning of this, and why did it take five goblins to tell me?"
Sarrasi stepped forward from the group of excited goblins. "Marak, please accept my apology for interrupting, but something wonderful has happened! There have been new goblins spotted in the woods. They are requesting to speak to you!"
"What?" he asked, loosening his hold on Hope, who stayed close by his side.
"Marak, I'm sorry I don't have more information but this is what I do know." She couldn't hide the excitement from her voice. "The Elf King sent a message that said a group of goblins tracked down his elf camp looking for our kingdom!"