Chapter 1 to TStbNL, Part I
The stranger appeared on the edge of town just after sunset. Mud from the last of the snowmelt clung to his worn boots as he left the skeletal trees that hewed close to the track outside of the small settlement. A dog of indeterminate breed stayed close to him, nose in the dirt or high in the air, sampling every scent to be found. Occasionally the animal stopped, ears pricked and eyes roving, before catching up the man once more. On those occasions the man’s steps would slow, as if waiting for confirmation from the dog that it was safe to proceed. They moved carefully, although whether it was from the possibly treacherous mud or another reason wasn’t clear.
Alys watched their approach, the bundle of early spring flowers forgotten as she clasped them with both hands to her chest. Her long brown hair hung in twin braids to either side of her round-cheeked face, the hood of her thick cloak down to let the last of the sun’s light reach her brown eyes unimpeded. Her lips were parted and eyes wide as she watched the man and dog enter her town, and her heart was hammering in her chest. She’d known right away, as soon as she spotted them, that they were strangers.
Strangers! He could be anything! A highwayman, separated from his band during the long winter and forced to seek solace among the hard-working people he would normally accost on the road. Or perhaps he was an exiled nobleman, forced from his lands after his ill-fated love for an unattainable princess brought the wrath of the king upon him. Maybe he was a mercenary soldier, seeking peace and comfort after a life of harrowing battles, eager to find a wife among the quiet people of the towns and farms. A passing troubadour? An emissary of the new Count? The new Count himself, in disguise to determine the loyalty of his people?
She studied the man closely, looking for clues as to whom and what he might be. His clothes were drab from cloak to boots, all faded and washed-out browns, marked by dirt and mud. His boots were well-worn leather, knee-high and laced with cracks and wrinkles. His breeches were tucked in to the boots and his plain long-sleeved tunic hung to his thighs. A thick-banded belt of faded black kept his tunic in place and showed a slim waist. He wore a pack over his ragged cloak, a bedroll tied at the top and a long bundle hanging from a strap at the bottom. Unlike herself, his hood was forward, obscuring his face. A long dagger in a worn sheath hung from his belt, and the stranger had a long wooden pole in one hand, leaning against one broad shoulder and carried parallel to the ground. Alys couldn’t see what lay at the other end of the pole, but her guess was a long, nicked spearhead. A mercenary! I knew it!
Sheltered as she was, it never occurred to her that approaching a stranger on the road after sunset could be dangerous. Alys had never only been as far as Brethford, the village a day’s travel south, and Altosmine, another settlement to the northeast abutting the Kronspine mountains. Peril and threats were the things of stories, constructs that allowed heroes to be heroic and fair damsels to get rescued. There was so little travel through her town that any new face was something of a wonder. The elders of the town talked of a time when caravans would pass through, bringing the raw precious metals from Altosmine through on the way to Anticus and crowding the inn to bursting, but Alys and the other younger residents couldn’t even conceive of such a thing. The only “caravan” that stayed in town now belonged to Tevosh Quickpate, the only merchant to ply his trade in the hilly region near the cliffs of the Kronspine, and it consisted of himself and his manservant Cam.
Therefore, Alys didn’t hesitate to walk directly in the path of the stranger, a few of her gathered flowers held out in one fist, and say, “Welcome to Daneswall!” Her bright eyes and wide smile held firm as the stranger stopped dead in his tracks. She tried not to shy away when the dog came forward and sniffed her boots, looked up at her, and emitted a soft snort. She hoped the relief didn’t show – she was a little afraid of strange animals, if not strange people – when the dog turned away and exchanged an inscrutable glance with the stranger. The man seemed to shrug slightly and moved towards her once again, pushing his hood back onto his shoulders.
His face was plain but not unappealing. High cheekbones framed his eyes, one of which appeared open more than the other. His nose was neither long nor short, his chin neither strong nor weak. His lips were full but seemed carved in a straight line and immobile. His hair was cut short and ragged on the ends, as if the knife at his belt was as close to a pair of shears that he came. A few days’ worth of stubble brushed his cheeks and chin. Two features, however, made him appear handsome to Alys: one was his eyes, which were a washed-out blue that contrasted well with his brown hair, and the other was the fact that his face wasn’t one she’d already seen a hundred times or more.
“Many thanks,” he said, his voice cracked and ragged as if it had been some time since he’d last used it. He took the flowers in one black-gloved hand as he stopped before her. He hesitated then brought them to his nose, seemingly unsure of what else to do with them.
Alys smiled brighter than before as she looked up at him. He was taller than most in the village, except Tall Kell of course, and even in her heeled boots Alys was barely over 15 hands in height. “My name is Alys. I can take you to the inn!” With that, she turned around and stepped to the side, eager to escort her new find into the hamlet.
The stranger looked up the hill, probably at the large building at the top of the rise. Its sheer size and the rising cliffwall behind it made it a focal point and impossible for anyone with a single half-working eye to miss, but that didn’t dampen Alys’ enthusiasm or intentions. She saw him shrug once more, then lift a hand with a gallant gesture for her to lead on. Delighted, she set out, stepping carefully to avoid any trace of mud appearing on her boots.
She burned with curiosity. She half-expected him to begin speaking with every step, and after a half-dozen she couldn’t keep silent any longer. She knew her manners – her mother always made sure that they were impeccable – and so couldn’t just come out and ask the stranger for his name. The dog that walked along to the man’s other side, though, couldn’t get offended. “What’s his name?” she asked brightly, glancing down at the black-furred mutt.
The man grunted. After a couple of steps he shrugged and said, “I don’t know.” He must have sensed her bafflement, because a couple of paces later he added, “She hasn’t told me yet.”
His answer didn’t help. Nor did he volunteer his own name, which forced Alys to stop coming up with a proper announcement when they entered the inn. She was going to use a similar version to the one from “Sir Gillard and the Broken Swan”, one of her favorite stories, but she’d have to come up with something more general. She inhaled deeply, getting ready for one last gambit to eke out his name without being improper, when the stranger cut her off.
“Isn’t it dangerous for a young girl to be outside on her own after sundown?” His voice was becoming smoother from use, and was a pleasant one, like the one she always imagined a town crier would have. The question, though, irked her deeply.
“I’m not a girl,” she answered snappily. Quickly she moderated her tone, which was quite unbecoming, and went on. “I am a woman of 19 summers and betrothed, though you couldn’t have known. Besides,” she added, “my mother says that I can stay outside until full dark if my chores are done.” The fact that everyone who didn’t know better assumed she was a girl didn’t help her irritation but only made it deeper. It was for the best that her careful scrutiny of the ground to avoid the mud made her miss the sudden half-smile on the stranger’s face from her answer, and by the time she looked up again it was gone.
Alys couldn’t stop her inquisitiveness for the sake of propriety. Besides, it wasn’t that long a walk to the inn, and she needed to obtain enough information from the stranger to lord over everyone later. His answers, though, made her quest seem more and more pointless.
“So, you came through Brethford?”
“That means you were in Anticus.”
“Is it as big as the stories say?”
“Depends on the story.”
“Are you planning on staying in Daleswall long?”
Alys could have shrieked in frustration. She had a chance to tell everyone in the village all about the stranger, and he wasn’t cooperating. To her horror, they were already at the level packed dirt in front of the inn, and her chance to be alone with the stranger was ending. Desperately, she cast about for something more to ask him, something that she could dispense to her sisters and friends with a knowing, world-weary nonchalance. The stranger was looking out at the village below them, clustered away and around the inn like acorns from the oak. The rest of the buildings rested on a larger flat shelf below the crest of the hill, leaving the inn to stand alone above them, like a watchful parent.
Instead of finding a question that would make the stranger pour out his story to her, Alys was distracted when the man leaned the long wooden pole against the wall by the door. She blurted out, “Why are you carrying a shovel?”
The stranger looked at her and smiled his half-smile, and seeing it for the first time, Alys felt a little watery in the knees. His eyes flicked out past her again towards the village then back to hers before he said, “It’s almost full dark.”
Alys yipped and turned hurriedly, curiosity and propriety forgotten as she began dashing home. Even then, she moved carefully enough to avoid getting mud on her boots.