It was an incredibly hot and dusty day at the market as Rowena made her way thru the crowds, with her sheep dog Kip on her heels. Normally she would never be allowed to go out alone, but the stable master and his wife, her adoptive aunt and uncle, who had been her guardians these last few years, both knew the dog would keep her safe. Even so, she had spotted one of the stable boys almost as soon as she'd reached the market, and knew he had probably been sent to keep an eye on her. He was at least smart enough not to try and follow too closely or walk with her. Not that she disliked him, most of the boys that worked at the stables she would call her friends. But the idea of having to be chaperoned made her angry, and he knew it. She hated being treated like a child, or like something fragile that must be carefully guarded. And she wasn't watched all the time because she was bad or because her guardians didn't trust her. It was because she was a lone unmarried girl, a maiden. The latter was somehow a well known fact and cause for much speculation, to her constant embarrassment.
It had gotten so that she couldn't go out without getting a good deal of attention from men everywhere she went. Her friends and the stable master's wife tried to convince her that it was because of her long brown hair and her green eyes that men found her pretty, and she realized that men did stare at her more than some other girls. But experience had taught her that men were not to be trusted. She thought of the stable master's brother, Averet, the man who had raised her like his own daughter….and then she shook her head to rid her mind of the memory, and held her head up and walked on. She would not trust them, but she would not let them make her afraid.
By now the attention from men had become tiresome but sometimes it was a source of amusement, especially if she was bored. And most especially if she was in a foul mood, which didn't happen too often, but mostly came along with the new moon. Some of the men tried to be charming and smile and bow, and others just openly leered at her. She mostly ignored their stares and their comments, as she'd become used to it now. She tried her best to be polite to the wives, but some of them regarded her with suspicion, which was almost as annoying, and quite unfair, she thought. As she'd gotten older, and less tolerant, she became bold enough to sometimes stare back at the men. She would give them an ill-tempered look, or pretend to appear shocked by their behavior. Most of them would either look away guiltily or mumble some sort of apology and scurry away. Others would look away, muttering to themselves angrily, sometimes calling her a name. It didn't matter to Rowena. Each time she succeeded in putting them off, she felt a small sense of victory. And it seemed to be a method that almost always worked. In fact, it seemed too easy sometimes, but it was a way to amuse herself when she was not at home with the dogs and horses.
There was one man that she always hoped desperately not to see, because she knew he could not be scared away so easily, and she dared not try it with him. She could barely stand to meet his gaze, he frightened her so. It was the way he looked at her that sent a chill thru her. He was always smiling, a sick twisted smile, but his eyes were hard and cruel, and filled with lust and greed. He had made his interest in her clear, and it wasn't a wife he was looking for. And worst of all, he was a lord, a noble, and she could not be rude to him, or he could easily make trouble for her, or for the stable master. She didn't want to imagine what sort of things he was capable of. She shuddered at the memory of her last encounter with him. Taking a deep breath, she tried to shake off the image and pressed on into the crowds.
At the carts that held the food, the crowds were the worst. Men would take the opportunity to stand too close to women walking alone in these crowded streets, or brush against them as if by accident. She had learned that it was best to ignore them as long as they didn't try to touch her breasts or grope her behind. She had once yelled at a man in the middle of the street for doing just that. He turned out to be a client of the stable master's and came to apologize to the man in person, which is the only way he'd heard about it. She'd gotten a bit of a lecture after that. When she was out in the streets of the city, he'd said, she represented his house, even if she was not his true daughter, and she must make every attempt to be polite and civil to all the merchants, as they were important to his business as he was to theirs. And if one was so bold as to touch her inappropriately, she must not attempt to deal with it herself, but was to report it to the stable master or his wife. So she learned to smile sweetly and answer their questions politely, even as they leered at her, stared openly at her chest or watched her walk away.
Today everyone seemed extra busy and pre-occupied, so no one had the time to bother her or talk much and she was especially grateful for that. In the shade under a fruit cart, she felt certain she was being watched, and looked around for the stable boy, but didn't see him. She scanned her immediate vicinity, but no one was paying her any attention. She sighed and moved on, telling herself she was being a silly girl. Still, she was convinced there were eyes on her, so she looked down at her most reliable friend – the dog at her feet – and followed his gaze across the street. And there she saw a man, dressed all in black, staring at her from an open doorway. She was surprised when he didn't look away, or even look guilty at being caught. He did give the dog a curious look, then looked back up at her and gave her a nod and an amused grin. He was impressed with her clever method of discovering him, but she was not sure if his nod of approval was meant for her or the dog.
She did not smile back, but he continued gazing at her. And when she gave him her best accusing look, he simply smiled, folded his arms across his chest, and leaned his shoulder against the doorway, and kept staring. He was not like anyone she'd ever seen before. Not just because she could tell he was out of place, mainly because of his dress, and probably more low born than she herself was. But he seemed very much at ease with himself, as if he didn't have a care in the world at this moment. He was tall and thin with dark hair and whiskers, and his face was weathered from being out in the elements and probably from living a rough life, she imagined. She thought he would probably not be considered typically handsome, but his air of confidence intrigued her and made her wonder who exactly this strange man was.
She gave him one last disapproving look, which only earned her a satisfied smile from him, and then she turned away. "Come on Kip," she said to the dog, and moved down the street to the next cart. But try as she might, she could not resist looking back, only to find him still watching her. He smiled again and cocked his head to the side, but she ignored him. Now he was the one playing a game, at her expense.
She moved further down the street, where it widened into a square. Wandering from cart to cart, she tried to forget the stranger but found her curiosity only increasing. From where she stood now, she could look back to the doorway as she pretended to be interested in the furs for sale in front of her, without the risk of being caught herself. Just then something behind him caught his attention, and he stepped out into the street to make way for…a child? No, it was a small man, coming out of the building where the stranger had been standing, and they were immediately in serious conversation as they moved into the crowd. The small man she recognized, as he was a noble, brother to the queen in fact. She had seen him often enough, and he even occasionally stopped by the stables to visit the stablemaster, but she had never spoken to him.
Now she turned her attention back to the stranger in black, and saw how his demeanor had so quickly and drastically changed. She could observe him now without fear of being discovered, and even as he talked, she could see his eyes darting about the street, his body tense and alert, but moving with a grace and ease that did not match the rest of his appearance. It was obvious he was some sort of protector to the little man, and he was completely focused on clearing a safe path thru the streets for the both of them.
As they were about to pass her, Rowena realized she was now observing him rather brazenly but still, she felt safely concealed. He was on duty now, and seemed to take his work very seriously. She watched as people instinctively moved out of his way as he approached, seeming frightened by his appearance alone. He would not be distracted by random girls in the street now. And just then his head turned ever so slightly towards her and he looked directly into her eyes for a brief moment before turning his attention back to the crowded street. She was too startled to move or look away, and felt her cheeks flush hotly, and then he and the little man were swallowed up by the throng of activity.
Rowena looked around as if she'd forgotten where she was, and was suddenly aware of how warm and still the air was, and how her clothes were sticking to her body. She tapped the sheep dog on his hip to get his attention away from the furs he was sniffing at, and turned and walked as quickly as possible in the direction of the stables, her dog padding silently behind her. She realized now that the stranger had never lost sight of her at all, and he had wanted to make sure she knew it. It gave her a strange but not altogether unpleasant feeling in her stomach, one that would re-visit her anytime she recalled the image of him, or the way he looked at her.
As she hurried home, she couldn't help but wonder if she would see him again.