The bright pink streaks of the late autumn sky were just starting to fade as a lone horse slowly strolled toward the edge of the overlook known as Bard’s Inspiration. The rider pulled back on the reins and brought the horse to a standstill. They both gazed down upon the small village as the last sliver of sun disappeared into the western horizon. Smoke from the many fireplaces drifted into the sky as the scents of hickory, cherry, and oak filled the air. A slight smile creased the old man’s aged weatherworn face. Another scent tickled his nose as he sat on the steed overlooking the village. He closed his eyes for just a moment and could almost taste the spiced potatoes being pulled out of the tavern’s oven. He stared down at the town for several minutes before finally taking a long, deep breath and turning away from the edge of the overlook.
Slowly and painfully he dismounted the horse on his left, as he usually did. It wasn’t until he landed on the cool, damp grass that he quickly regretted not dismounting from the other side. Just as he had landed, his knee buckled, sending him sprawling to the ground. Pain coursed through his body as he struggled to sit up. The horse simply looked down at the rider and neighed softly.
When the pain subsided somewhat, he grabbed onto the dangling reins and slowly stood up, using the strong, loyal steed as support. Aarris gently stroked the long, brown snout of his trusted steed and grinned sheepishly.
“It’s okay, Ingot. I’m just a little stiff from the long ride, that’s all.”
The horse neighed again, somewhat louder. The old man chuckled until it hurt. “Okay, okay, maybe I’m getting too old for this adventuring stuff.” The horse neighed again. “Okay, okay, maybe it was that poisoned arrow I took to the knee.”
Just then a cool breeze struck him, sending a shiver down his spine. He hobbled to the backpack behind the saddle and pulled out his long brown leather duster and quickly donned it. Then he grasped the reins and gently led the horse along the cliff’s edge for about fifty yards before he stopped and let go of the reins. He closed his eyes and sighed heavily. Another gust of wind struck him, blowing his long, graying hair into his face. Absently he rubbed his grayish-reddish beard as memories of an almost forgotten age washed over him. Finally he opened his eyes and slowly approached the lone granite stone before him. He dropped to his good knee and gently stroked the lettering on the stone’s face. A tear dropped to his cheek as he sighed once more. After several minutes of silent contemplation, he rubbed his more gray than red beard and then struggled once more to return to a standing position. He stepped back to his horse, painfully mounted, grasped the reins loosely and steered the horse away from the cliff’s edge. Slowly the horse and rider moved down the narrow dusty path away from the lone granite stone, away from the small village, and into the growing darkness.
A sharp, shooting pain coursed through his body, waking him from his vivid dream. Confusion permeated throughout his soul for several minutes before his senses slowly returned to him. Faint morning sunlight seeped through the curtains covering the single window in the bedroom. He looked out of the corner of his eye to see the back of his still sleeping wife. Another wave of pain caused him to wince noticeably. He eased himself out of the bed and hobbled toward the hall. As gently as he could, he closed the bedroom door before heading down the short corridor toward the living room. Every few steps he flexed his knee in an attempt to get the circulation flowing again, but to no avail. He stopped at the entrance to the kitchen and leaned up against the wall. His eyes closed as yet another flash of pain struck his knee and quickly cursed throughout his body and soul.
Memories of his last battle flowed through his mind: the sword fight with the bandit leader; the fist fight with the guard; the dodging and ducking of the mage’s fire bolts; the poisoned arrow to the knee… not necessarily in that order. Somehow he had managed to kill the archer by throwing his dagger, but he still didn’t know how he’d gotten to the Temple of Una where he had awakened. One of the temple priestesses there had saved his life and extracted the poison from his body, but the damage had already been done. His knee was too badly damaged to ever be repaired again. The priestess had given him some herbs and medications for the pain, but she had told him that his knee would never heal properly. He’d spent over a month in the temple in her capable, loving care before he could even stand the pain of walking. His rehabilitation with her magics had actually helped to ease the pain but they were only a temporary fix. The pain always returned, would always return.
His eyes jerked open again before he could get to the memories of the nights he had spent with the priestess, engaged in more than just rehabilitations. He had left her and the temple in the middle of the night after one such rendezvous. She had told him another month of therapy and magical sessions would ease the pain greatly, but the thoughts of his wife eventually made him guilty. The priestess was beautiful, young, and very good at her job, but that was only the beginning. Granted he had no real love for his wife anymore, not since… not since that day sixteen years ago… but that didn’t excuse him for his actions with the beautiful red-headed Priestess of Una, even if she was just ‘doing her job.’ The priestess was far from his first indiscretion with other women, but he had never spent more than a few nights with them. This priestess… there was just something about her that he was afraid of. More than once he thought that he might be getting used to her presence and her loving touches. That’s the main reason he’d left her in the middle of the night. That and he wanted to get back home before winter set in.
At least that’s what he told himself.
His gaze moved through the room until his attention fell to the coat rack beside the main door. He suddenly remembered the herbs she had given him, or rather the herbs he’d ‘acquired.’ He moved as quickly as he could through the pain to the leather duster hanging on the rack. He reached into the inner breast pocket and pulled out a small wooden box. From another pocket he pulled out a pipe. He then put a pinch of the herb into the pipe, replaced the lid and put the box back into the coat pocket. Then he moved to the mantle above the fireplace to where he kept his box of normal pipe tobacco. He mixed some of the tobacco into the pipe with the herb and anxiously lit the contents of the pipe. Just a couple deep hits of the pipe and the pain of his knee seemed to simply dissipate into the chill morning air. His head tilted back and he smiled. He took another deep intake of the tobacco-herb mixture, then reached down to throw a couple more logs onto the dying fire. He stoked the fire with the nearby cast iron poker to reveal the hidden flames beneath the coals. A couple well placed puffs of air had the fire blazing again as it began to consume the new fuel. He moved to a nearby chair and plopped into the comfortable cushioning. He took another puff from the pipe and closed his eyes.
Images of the much younger priestess instantly invaded his reveries. He could still feel her warm, sensual hands massaging his sore, aching, old muscles; the heat and tingles of her magical therapy sessions; the silky smoothness of her inner thighs; the many long nights they had shared, entwined in love and joy. He continued to relive his memories until the tobacco mixture extinguished itself. He smiled to himself painlessly as he cleaned out the pipe and replaced it atop the mantle. He then moved back to the coat rack, donned the leather duster, and then stepped briskly into the cold morning air.
When the door opened, a large lump of fur lifted its head to look up. Aarris reached down to pat the ancient dog on the head and scratch behind his ears. “Morning Brister,” he said softly.
The gray dog merely laid his head back down to soak up what would soon be the sun’s warming rays, but his eyes followed its master strolling across the yard to the large barn. When Aarris opened the door to the barn, he almost expected to have his senses bombarded by the smells of the giant forge in the center of the barn. Almost. He took a deep breath, but smelled nothing. Slowly he stepped up to the forge and sat down at the edge. He shook his head and sighed heavily. His eyes scanned the area around the forge. Along the perimeter of the forge area sat several full weapon racks and storage sheds, but not much more. He stood up slowly and moved to inspect the sheds. He found a pad in one of the sheds and started to write a ‘grocery’ list of supplies he was going to need.
When that was done, he went to the nearest weapon rack and gently grasped one of the swords he had made several months ago, before his latest misadventure. He took a couple practice swings and then ran his hand along the blade to check the sharpness. He nodded once to himself in satisfaction. Carefully he gathered up the remaining blades hanging on the rack and carried them to the wagon near the front double doors of the barn. He wrapped each one individually with a wool blanket, and then moved to another weapon rack and repeated the process. When he was completely done, there were twenty weapons, a mix of short swords, long swords, and daggers, stacked and packed on the back of the wagon. He opened the barn doors and headed to the stables between the barn and the main house.
He gathered Ingot and hitched him to the wagon. Just as he got the wagon out of the barn, he heard a noise behind him. He turned to see the house front door close and a woman quickly walking in his direction. He frowned slightly as he held onto Ingot’s reins. The woman stepped up to him and wrapped her coat around herself tightly to fight off the morning chill.
“When did you get home, Aarris?” she asked. “I wasn’t expecting you for a couple more weeks.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “Last night.”
“Why didn’t you wake me?”
“It was late.”
“You could have woke me up this morning,” she said with a slight gleam in her eyes.
Aarris shook his head, frowned again. “Sorry. I woke up early and couldn’t get back to sleep.”
He nodded and lowered his head. “Yeah.”
She took his hand and looked up into his deep gray eyes. “The note I got from the courier said that you were going to be laid up in the temple for another month. What happened?”
He answered her with a weak grin as he thought briefly about the red-headed priestess and how he had left her lying naked in his bed. Aarris forced the warm memory from his mind and focused on the much shorter woman before him. “I wanted to get back home before winter set in,” he answered finally. “I got a lot of forging to catch up on.”
She nodded, grinned seductively. “When I found out you were in a Temple of Una with all those beautiful young priestesses the temples are famous for, I figured I wouldn’t see you till spring!” she teased.
He chuckled and shook his head. “Nah, I’m too old for all those pretty young girls. They wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
“Right,” she said sarcastically.
His smile faded as he glanced toward the back of the wagon. “Besides, you know me. I can’t stand being laid up. If I’m not swinging my sword somewhere, I wanna be making a sword. I left the temple in the middle of the night so no one knew I was leaving.”
“And so no one could stop you,” she added with a wink.
He nodded. “That too.” Aarris turned back toward the barn doors and the forge inside. “I see you let it go cold,” he muttered with more venom in his voice than intended.
She shrugged. “You were supposed to be gone for three months and I’m not a blacksmith.”
“Your father was!”
“Yeah, and you were his apprentice, not me! There’s a reason for that! I never wanted to do the job my father did. It’s too dirty, nasty, and hot.”
Aarris let Ingot’s reins drop as he walked up to close and lock the barn doors. He turned back to look at his wife, who was still in her night clothes except for the overcoat she had wrapped around herself. “Do you want to go to town with me? I’ve got a grocery list a mile long and some weapons to sell.”
“Sure. Can you give me about twenty minutes to get dressed?”
He nodded. “Hurry up, though. We’re burning daylight.”
She simply glared at him until he winked. She rolled her eyes and turned toward the sunrise. “Right. Daylight has just begun!”
He grinned, shrugged, and then followed her up the path to the house. While she went into the bedroom to get dressed, he grabbed his pipe and tobacco box. He only waited a few minutes before she came back out dressed for the market. Just before they left the house, Aarris grabbed the belt and scabbard off the coat rack and strapped it to his waist, checking to make sure the short sword and daggers were in place. He then took the gleaming steel spear from the nearby weapon rack and hooked it into place on his back. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye.
“Expecting trouble on the road?”
He grinned slightly and shook his head. “Nope. And dressed like this, trouble won’t come looking for me. But if it does, I’m prepared.”
She simply nodded and followed him out the door toward the wagon.