A biting wind wailed through the door as a tall, weathered traveler stepped into the small inn. As he entered, the noise in the crowded lobby grew perceivably quieter and a few eyes darted his way. Failing to recognize a familiar face, the crowd quickly returned to their conversations and the noise in the inn returned to its previous roar.
No longer under the crowd's scrutiny, the cloaked traveler took a moment to assess the inn. It was small, or at least gave the illusion of being small since the place was packed near to capacity. Perhaps cozy was a more appropriate term. Yes, the traveler thought to himself, the inn was… cozy. The far wall was lined with fireplaces, each aglow with crackling fire. In the warm glow of the fires and the soft din of small talk, one could almost forget about the storm raging just outside the shuttered windows.
Convienced that the inn would provide adequate shelter and comfort for the night, the stranger approached the main counter where a wrinkled old man sat hunched over on a stool, apearantly asleep. The traveler hesitated for a moment, debating over whether or not it would be rude to wake the poor man from his rest. But then again, wasn't it rude for the man to fall asleep on the job in the first place? A brief smile crossed his face as he debated this apparent irony of ediqete. These days, nothing seemed simple, not like they had when he was young and full of ideals about right and wrong, good and evil. Those days were long gone, however, and the black and white virtues he had once been willing to die for had faded into the grey of day to day survival. Thinking on this, the traveler suddenly felt very old. He was mercifully spared from his nostalgia, however, when the old man behind the counter suddenly cleared his throat and sat upright, or at least as close to up right as his narled old spine would allow.
The old man looked at the traveler through glazed eyes, nearly hidden in the sea of wrinkles that comprised his face and in a raspy, but not unkind voice asked, "What can I do for ya, sonny?"
"I'd like a room for the night and a warm meal, sir," the traveler responded in a rough voice.
"Aye. Your room'll be da first one on the left, right up dem stairs." The man pointed a bony finger toward the far end of the room where a staircase disappeared into the darkness of the inn's second floor. "Can I intrest you in a mug 'o ale to warm ye bones? Best in town. Draws quite a crowd as you can see."
"Sounds good. And a slab of mutton if you got any."
"Sure thing. Have ya a seat and the waitress'll bring it out right quick."
The stranger nodded in appreciation and threw a few coins on the counter before heading into the inn's tavern. As he entered the lobby he walked with heavy and deliberate steps, and moved as though his joints were stiff and sore. The long, weather-beaten cloak he wore seemed to fit him strangely. It was bulged and lumpy, and outlined broad shoulders that didn't seem entirely natural. No one seemed to notice however, seeing as everyone's attention was devoted to eating or conversation, and even the occasional sideways glance revealed nothing in the dim glow of the fires.
The innkeeper had spoken the truth about drawing a crowd, yet the ale's quality had yet to be confirmed or denied. The heavy oak tables scattered around the bar were packed with patrons, and even the benches lining the walls were filled. Being on the outskirts of town, this inn had quickly become a favorite of the local farmers and merchants. Scanning the room, the weary traveler finally located a table that wasn't filled nearly to capacity. In a dark corner of the room, far from the inviting glow of the many fireplaces, sat an old man. He sat alone with his back to the door, surrounded in a cloud of smoke from an eloquently carved pipe he was pensively smoking. His thinning hair was long and grey and he wore a beard that reached nearly to his waistline. As the traveler approached the table he caught a wiff of the exotic tobacco the man was smoking and savored the sweet smell, far superior to the sorry stuff sold in the local market.
"Care to join me?" the old man asked, without turning to face the stranger. "It's been awhile since I've had company, and I'd enjoy hearing any news you have from abroad."
The traveler was startled by the man's sudden and unexpected invitation, but graciously accepted. There was something unsettling about him, but at the same time he had a kindness and wisdom that soon put his guest at ease. The old man shared his tobacco and the stranger shared what little news he had managed to gather in the West. The two enjoyed each other's company until both had eaten and the storm had passed. During a lull in the conversation, the old man bowed his head either in sleep or in deep thought and the strangers eyes wandered around the room. The crowd had nearly all dispersed and the fires had died down to smoldering embers. The traveler had indulged in the inn's fine ale and was beginning to get a bit drowsy. As his eyes began to slowly close in exahsution something in the corner of the room caught his attention. The shock snapped him into immediate sobriety and alertness.
Just above the center fireplace on the far side of the wall hung a portrait of a beautiful maiden. She sat straight and proper in a lushious garden full of vibrant flowers. As beautiful as the flowers were, they paled in comparision to the young woman's long golden hair and smiling blue eyes. Her face had a soft and compassionate glow that the artist had lovingly captured in every brush stroke. The stranger was amazed that such a thing of beauty had managed to go unnoticed for so long, for surely had been there when he had first entered and assessed the inn.
The look of awe on the traveler's face must have been unmistakable. "Beautiful, isn't she?" asked the old man from across the table.
The stranger shook himself out of his daze and attempted to regain his composure. "Yes. Who is she?"
The man flashed a wide toothless grin. "You must not be from around these parts. That there is King Henry's daughter. According to the old wife's tales the King once hired a powerful wizard to act as his advisor. After a short time, the king began demanding that the wizard use his talents to help him satisfy his greed and thirst for power. When the wizard refused to aid his army, he was exhiled from the kingdom. In retribution the wizard conjured a great scaly beast to humble the king by stealing his greatest source of pride, his only daughter. She was wisked away to an old abandoned keep in the mountains to the north, and despite the efforts of many brave and noble men, she has remained there for several years now. The king has grown desperate now and has offered his daughter's hand in marriage and nearly a third of his kingdom to the man that brings her safely home."
The stranger gazed thoughtfully at the picture for a moment before responding. "It's a shame that an innocent young girl should have to pay for the mistakes of her father. I wish her the best."
That said, he downed the remainder of his ale and bid his companion good night. As he reached across the table to lay down a few coins to pay for the meal the old man snatched his wrist with a speed and strength that seemed impossible for his age. Before the traveler could react, the man had pulled back the fabric of the ill fitting cloak to reveal a steel gauntlet. Ingraved on the back was a single rose framed by a cresent moon.
The man's face lost it's jovial expression and was replaced by a mixture of surprise and joy. "You're a knight… a Guardian of the Rose. But… but your order was disbanded years ago when your kingdom was destroyed in the uprising…" The old man stiffly climbed out of his chair and knelt before the knight.
"Those were different times," the knight responded sharply as he quickly tugged his sleeve back into place and waved off the man's gesture. However, the knight's distaste quickly changed to surprise. "Wait. How did you recognize that symbol? My order fell into obscurity after the fall of Ascalon."
The old man shot the knight a cunning grin. "I know many things that are no longer common knowledge. Many years ago I was the king's personal historian, before he grew depressed over the loss of his daughter and began isolating himself from his people. As it stands, no one has entered the castle in almost five years. But enough idle chit-chat! You need to get your rest. Tomorrow is going to be a big day." Then under his breath he added, "Our kingdom may be saved yet."