“It isn’t very often that one sees a blood-spiller in town.”
The remark caught Arthur off guard. He’d been gazing off toward the market as he thought of all the supplies he’d need for the repairs on his farm. He was in the middle of deciding how he would negotiate with the old carpenter for the wood and nails when he heard the blacksmith’s comment. All thoughts of repairs were now replaced with a much more interesting distraction.
“Sorry. What did you say?”
“See for yourself,” the blacksmith replied as he pointed toward a corner of the market. There, along a lesser trafficked path, walked a man far different than any Arthur had ever seen before. The man wore a tattered cloak, though chain mail could be seen when the breeze blew the fabric. The man’s heavy boots left deep tracks in the soft earth. A strange, but simple symbol was visible on the shield strapped to the man’s back, and a sword far bigger and more menacing than any normal soldier’s weapon was sheathed between the shield and the cloak.
“Who is he?” Arthur asked, suddenly curious about this mysterious traveler.
“No one really knows,” the blacksmith answered. “He just shows up from time to time, stays for a bit, then goes on his way. Don’t know if anyone’s had the nerve to ask him his business.”
“I saw him early this morning as I was leaving the farm,” Arthur said. “Through the fog, that is. I didn’t get that clear of a look. But I’m sure it was him. I’m not sure what he was up to, though. He was just walking along the tree line past the edge of my property. He seemed harmless enough.”
The blacksmith chuckled. “You haven’t heard the stories, then. Some call him ‘The Burier.’ They say he’s put more men in the grave than the undertaker himself. I heard that one time he-”
“Beggin’ your pardon, but that’s not right at all,” said the tavern owner, who had just made his way over the table where Arthur and the blacksmith were sitting. “The man doesn’t have a name. They say he gave up his name and lineage to fight the darkness. Sure, he’s laid many to rest, but not one man has ever felt his blade. Monsters, on the other hand- they shake in their boots at the sound of his voice. I heard he once spent a week in the thick of the forest just doing battle with the devil himself.”
“The only spirits around these parts are the ones in the cups you serve,” scoffed the blacksmith. Look at him again, and you’ll see. You can still see the blood left on his cloak.”
“But then why don’t his sword show the signs of battle? If he was fighting men, his sword would be covered in all manner of chips and scratches and God knows what else from meeting with metal and bone. You’ve got ta admit his sword’s cleaner than if he’d bought it yesterday. That’s why it’s got ta be demons and spirits he’s fighting. Somethin’ spiritual about that man.”
Arthur thought this was a good point, so he looked at the blacksmith for an answer.
“Aye, you’re right. I’ll grant that his sword is clean. But it’s not because he’s been fighting spirits and whatnot. No, his sword is the work of masters. I’ve never seen anything like it myself. I’ve heard it cuts clean through the thickest armor without so much as a scuff. I’ve asked around, and nobody knows anything about it. It’s almost like it’s blessed somehow.”
“Well, sir, who’s talkin’ of spiritual things now, eh?” the tavern owner chuckled to himself as he turned to look at Arthur again. “Know this, son. I’ve been in this town a long time. I’ve seen more men come through here than anyone else around, and I’ve seen my fair share of soldiers. This man- he ain’t no ordinary soldier. He walks like he’s on a mission.”
Arthur looked back at the soldier, looking for any clues that might help uncover the mystery. He could indeed see what looked like dark stains of blood on his cloak. The man wore a low hanging hood that concealed much of his face, but a thick beard was just visible from his shadowed countenance. As he walked, people gave him a wide berth. It was clear that his presence made everyone uncomfortable, though nobody seemed quite sure what the reason was.
“Surely someone must know something about him,” Arthur said, his eyes still following the mysterious warrior.
Overhearing this comment, the baker, coming to deliver some fresh bread to the tavern owner, stopped and stepped closer to the men, speaking in a hushed tone.
“That man there isn’t natural. I know every man, woman, and child in this town, and every living one stops by my shop at least once a week. In all the days I’ve seen him, he’s never once bought so much as a biscuit. If you ask me, I don’t think he eats.”
“Couldn’t he just get his food from somewheres else?” laughed the blacksmith. “Just because you ain’t seen him eat don’t mean he don’t eat.”
“No, he’s right!” the tavern owner quickly added. “I’ve heard he’s from the race of the kings. They were said to be sustained by God himself. Never ate no bread from no man. That’s what keeps ‘em fit to fight the darkness. Story goes that they’re immortal, and that that one there actually fought death himself one day. Then he just disappeared. Folks said he’d finally met his match until they saw him later that week walking into town from the direction of the graveyards. He’s no mortal man, mind ya. No mortal man at all.”
The blacksmith had clearly had enough of these stories, for he pushed back from the table and stood to his feet.
“You men can have your wives’ tales. I’ll be off.”
As he stood to leave, one of the city watchman rounded the corner of the tavern, frantically running toward the center of town. As he was passing by the outside table where the men sat, he stumbled and fell. The blacksmith quickly stepped over to help him up, asking him what had happened.
“It’s the- the- the woods! The woods out past your farm!” He pointed at Arthur when he said this.
“What about the woods, boy?” asked the blacksmith, a more serious tone evident in his voice.
The watchman caught his breath a bit and then responded. “Bodies! Dozens of bodies, all of demons! Oh, the faces- they were horrible!”
His eyes began to stare blankly into space as the memories of what he saw consumed his focus. Arthur was growing worried. His thoughts went to his family, his flocks, his crops. He worried for their safety, but he was too shocked by the moment to move. The blacksmith spoke again.
“We’ll sound the alarm! I’ll get some weapons from the shop and-”
The watchman stopped him mid sentence. “No! That’s just it. The demons- they’re all dead. Slaughtered like they were nothing. There aren’t any other bodies but theirs. I say, whatever army got to them, if it’s still out there, it’s more powerful than any I’ve ever heard of. I’ve never seen a massacre like that. Those demons would’ve overrun the city easy if they’d made it to us.”
“Did you see the fight? Do you know what got to them?”
“No, I didn’t see the fight,” responded the watchman. “Just the aftermath. I don’t have a clue as to what happened. All I know is we would’ve been long dead if they’d made it to the city gates. It’s as if the gods saved us before we even knew to ask for help.”
“Must be that man,” said the tavern owner silently.
They each turned to look for the stranger, but couldn’t see him through the people.
“If that’s true…” The blacksmith didn’t finish his sentence. A look of fear had swept over him. His face had gone white. He turned toward his shop, his eyes still scanning for the man in the crowd. As he started walking toward the market, he stopped, turning back to Arthur, and said, “You be careful, boy. Just be careful. Whatever you end up believing about that man, just be sure you stay away from him. Men like that are trouble, and they don’t deserve any place in a civilized town like this.”
At this, he nodded at the men and went on his way, noticeably shaken.
The watchman ran off toward the market as the baker began to step away, watching the market closely for any signs of the stranger. “Keep safe, men. I don’t know what these tidings may mean for us, but I pray I see you again.”
As he said this, the baker got into his cart and rode down the street. Arthur looked back at the tavern owner who was staring into the crowd. He had spotted the soldier. And yet, the tavern owner watched him with a look not of fear, but of hope, as if he knew something the others didn’t.
“Arthur, you listen here. I don’t know much, but I know this for sure: That man there- he ain’t no menace. Sure, he ain’t one to be crossed, but he means us no harm. In fact, I’ve got a funny feeling he’s more important than any of us know.”
Arthur was confused by this statement. “What exactly do you mean? You’re not saying that… that he killed those… things, are you?”
“Don’t know. But I just have a feeling.” The tavern owner let a slight grin slip as he said this. “You’ll be excusin’ me now, if you will. I’ve left my post for too long.”
The tavern owner calmly turned and walked back to wash the cups that had been piling up, filling up a few others every now and then. But Arthur sat back, a bit dumbfounded, and wondered at what those last words might mean. As he thought, he looked back over at the warrior. Arthur wasn’t sure how the blacksmith and baker had missed him just then. The stranger seemed to stand out clearly in the crowd to him. He’d now reached the stables, and Arthur curiously watched as the man gently stroked the main of a great, white horse before he mounted the saddle and began to ride toward the edge of town, passing through the crowds along the road in front of the tavern on his way. As he passed, Arthur, failing to conceal his curiosity, stared up into the face of the warrior. It was then he saw the man’s eyes. They glowed white as if on fire, piercing Arthur to his heart and freezing him in fear. And, yet, Arthur felt a sort of warmth intermingled with the fear, as if the fire that burned itself into his soul was also warming the coldness of his heart. Though still shadowed, the man seemed to smile at Arthur as he rode past.
For a few moments, Arthur couldn’t move, processing all that he had heard and seen, wondering what sort of man this might be who could single-handedly defeat an army of devils, who had such power disguised in meekness, who had saved an entire city before the citizens had felt the first hint of danger. Arthur felt safer knowing such a man existed, especially as he thought of his family who had undoubtedly been saved from certain death. The thoughts and feelings gripped him. But eventually, life had to go on. He stood, nodding to the tavern owner as he left, and walked toward the market. But he couldn’t shake the mysterious warrior from his mind. So many questions remained unanswered. Yet one thing seemed to stand out as true: he was indeed more important, more necessary, than any of them dared imagine. And, whoever he was, he’d saved them, even those who doubted his character, without any payment or praise. Arthur turned around to catch one more glimpse of the mysterious warrior, but the man was already gone. But that was fine. Arthur knew he’d meet the man again. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he was certain. This warrior belonged to a kingdom currently unknown to Arthur, but it would be known soon. He’d experienced an unexpected salvation, and his life couldn’t possibly remain the same.