It was quiet in the tavern, even as the night drew on. Small huddles of people were grouped around the tables, drinking from mugs and tankards flowing with ale. A fire was blazing in the fireplace, beneath a wall of snarling bestial icons. On the other side of the inn, a young man in a flamboyant outfit was attempting to hold an audience to hear his tales in exchange for coin. Aside from that, it was a quiet evening.
Towards the back of the crowd, in one corner of the inn, a man sat alone, looking into his tankard. He cared not for the chatter of would-be bards, nor for the conversation of others. He kept his eyes on his drink, lost in thought. His faded red cloak was draped over the back of his seat, revealing a studded leather jerkin and short-sleeved mailshirt. He had the build of a warrior, an image enforced by the broadsword hanging from his belt, the number of tattoos and scars that lined his thick arms, and the look in his dark eyes. His eyes told tales of a hundred battles, of dances with death, of lost comrades and fighting far from home. All these thoughts could have been betrayed, had the warrior made eye contact. But he simply stared fixedly at the table, oblivious to all but his own memories as he gulped down the remnants of his tankard. With what seemed an effort, he rose to his feet, and strode to the bar.
The barman waddled over to him.
"Same again?", he asked. The warrior nodded.
"That'll be three shillings then mate".
"Does my service to this village mean nothing?".
"Service alone won't keep this place alive, nor will it put food on my family's table", replied the barman, with a shrug.
"Apparently not", muttered the warrior, glancing at the man's swollen gut.
"Allow me". Both men looked. A woman stood next to the warrior, and spoke in an energetic, shrill voice that seemed alive with ethereal energy.
"Very well", said the barman, reaching for a fresh mug.
"And one for myself", she said quickly, lowering her hood.
"Very well love". With that, the stranger turned to the warrior.
"To what do I owe the favour?", he asked. There was a hunt of suspicion in his voice, that did nothing to phase his new benefactor.
"Well, did you not say yourself, that your service to this village should render all…expenses, free?", she replied.
"You seem to know much of my service", he returned, "How is this?".
"You ask me this question?", she replied, almost incredulously, "You are Gaheris, Son of Gareth. You are a knight of legend, and not undeservedly if half of the stories surrounding you are true". The barman slammed the two foaming mugs on the bar.
"Thank you, good sir", replied the woman, passing the barman a gold piece.
"It's only six shillings love", he began.
"Oh, that's for the rest of the evening sir", she said brightly, "I'm assuming that'll cover us?". The barman nodded shakily, staring at the gold piece with hungry eyes, until he was called over by several more patrons.
"You have my thanks", said Gaheris, "But I would prefer you to refrain from using my past name in this place. The villagers know me as Leonidas, and I do not wish to see that change for some time".
"Of course, but might I ask why?". Gaheris took his pint and took a gulp.
"A name such as mine manages to attract unwanted notice, despite my best intentions", he replied, "And on the subject of names, I still do not know yours". She smiled.
"My name is Tintia", she said. Gaheris looked directly at her on hearing it, and fully noticed her appearance for the first time. Short, pale hair, a spiral tattoo that waved around piercing, bright green eyes, on skin that seemed to glow with some mystic energy.
"Indeed", she replied brightly, "And this surprises you?".
"To some degree. There have been very few feykin around here for quite some time". She nodded.
"Indeed, my race likes to distance itself from others as a preference".
"That's something I can relate to", muttered Gaheris, taking another sip from his mug.
"So I have gathered, if you prefer the guise of 'Leonidas' to Sir Gaheris of Logres". Gaheris shot her a dirty look.
"I believe I made myself clear before", he stated, "Need I do so again?". Tintia raised her hand.
"Please sir, I mean no offence. Indeed, I come with honest, good intentions".
"Such as". Tintia paused.
"Perhaps, not here?", she asked, "Shall we return to your table?".
Gaheris resumed his seat, whilst Tintia placed herself graciously on her chair.
"Now, to business", said Gaheris abruptly, "What do you want of me?".
"Before I begin", she said, "I have few questions". Gaheris took another swig.
"Why are you here?".
"It is my duty".
"Duty?". Gaheris placed his mug back on the table.
"In my order, one knight is assigned to a village to protect it. Usually to train the militia, or help in the running of the town".
"And what is it you do?". Gaheris snorted.
"What is there to do? It's my personal law to never become involved in local politics, and as for the militia, I'd be surprised to find a man who knows one end of a spear from the other".
"So you alone manage the town's defence?", asked Tintia. Gaheris nodded.
"Someone of my experience needs little in the way of assistance".
"Indeed. I imagine someone with your reputation requires no comrades", replied Tintia. Gaheris snorted again.
"I've lost too many comrades. Too many men, too many friends. That is one thing you must know about me, pixie. Those around me will die. I am cursed by my profession. At least with my alternative identity, I have no sword-swingers desperate to forge a name for themselves by basking in my shadow".
"Is that so?". Gaheris looked around. Tintia was looking directly at him. Her green eyes sparkled as he stared into them, captivated by her tattoos and pearly white skin. He tried to work out what she was doing, but he could only continue to stare into her shining eyes.
"So, a knight of renown, a warrior unmatched by any, is assigned to keep safe a village in the middle of nowhere, with a yokel army at his command, and living under a false name?".
"What of it?". She gave a small laugh.
"If I might be honest, it hardly seems the life for a warrior of your skill". She leaned closer to him. The scent of a forest caught Gaheris' attention. Of pine-needles and pollen, which increased as they moved closer together.
"It's still a life", he replied, almost breathlessly.
"Surely the great Sir Gaheris would be better suited to a role more…challenging than a nursemaid?". Gaheris suddenly realised what was going on, and rose to his feet, towering over the pixie maiden before him.
"Do not attempt to enchant me, pixie!", he snarled, "I am not some fool with whom you can play your tricks with. Now, get to the bloody point! What do you want of me?".
Tintia blinked, before rising to her feet as well.
"I have come on behalf of my commander", she began.
"If you're looking for a mercenary", replied Gaheris, "I fight for something more than mere coin. I am a man of standards".
"So I see", she sniffed, casting a backwards glance to the patrons behind her, a few of whom had started a fight with the bard, who was using his lute to defend himself from the barrage of mugs and stools that were hurled in his direction.
"In any case", continued Gaheris, gulping from his pint as he sat back down, "I am duty bound to this village. My oath as a knight decrees it". Tintia looked into his eyes again.
"Gaheris. My commander is a powerful man. A man of influence. If I report to him that there is need for a replacement knight in this town, he will have it seen to. You could leave this village forever, and keep your honour and reputation intact. All you have to do is say, and it shall be done".
"But why would I leave? I have found peace here, near enough". Tintia gave another soft chuckle.
"What my commander has in mind is something slightly beyond the role of a hired killer. Indeed, it is something far more superior. What my commander needs is a warrior of experience. Of honour, and skill. You are such a man, Gaheris. To sit here, in this filthy, common inn, to live out your days as a farmer, is not an end worthy of you. You can argue, but you know this to be true". She reached inside her cloak. Gaheris' hand moved instinctively to the hilt of his sword, but Tintia produced no weapon. Only a signet band. She placed it on the table.
"My commander's arms", she said, "He has a role for you. One that he is determined for you to have. I am duty bound to keep his name and the role in question to myself for now. Only if you accept can I reveal more. But I can promise you this, Gaheris. You would never want for anything in your life ever again. You can indulge in luxurious food, drink, and women. To live your days in a palace, rather than a hovel. To live like many would kill for. Dwell upon it Gaheris. I will wait for you, by the riverside, should you decide to take my commander's offer. One day is all I can wait".
Gaheris took the seal. By the light of the candle on the table, he could make out the imprint of a dragon, wrapping its serpentine body between the blades of three swords.
He gave a breath of surprise. He'd seen such symbols before. It was an ancient code, but one of the highest honour. But none such as this. Never a dragon, and never three swords. But it sparked a sense of unfathomable familiarity deep inside him.
He looked up to ask Tintia. But the pixie had gone. Disappeared without a trace.
A smile etched itself on Gaheris' hard, unshaven face. Which gave way to a grin, which in turn became a chuckle as he drained the remnants of his mug.
"Bloody pixies", he said aloud.