Note: I know, I know, I'm working on way too much stuff all at once. I really want to finish Ya Feen Iel, but I just got this crazy idea for this story and now I simply must write on it. So bear with me. I know, I know, I always say that...

Chapter One: The Stranger

"No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted." --Aesop

"You'll never be good enough for her, Gunthur! You can't to anything right! Ceilia needs a real man, someone who can take care of her. Not a crybaby little wimp like you!"

Blood spattered the dusty trail as Gunthur fell to his knees, clutching at his nose. The larger boy towered over him, an evil smirk distorting his handsome features into a cruel mask. The five or six other youths gathered around snickered at his taunting. Gunthur closed his eyes tight. He had known this would happen. He never should have asked Ceilia for help. He had known Kory would do this! Helpless fury washed over him, and he forced one eye open, glaring up at his much larger tormentor over his fingers. Once, a long time ago, he might have fought back...

Kory caught the flicker of defiance and made a rude noise, lifting one booted foot and slamming it into Gunthur's stomach. The smaller boy gagged and doubled over as all of his breath, and his anger, disappeared, replaced with abject terror. He began to shake uncontrollably, and not from pain. Kory's foot came down on his back, and Gunthur's chin smacked the ground hard. He tasted blood as his sharp teeth tore at the inside of his cheek. Kory struck again, the toe of his boot connecting with Gunthur's side solidly enough to lift the boy off the ground slightly. Gunthur gasped and spit out a mouthful of sticky scarlet fluid.

One of the other boys stepped forward. He sounded uneasy. "Hey, Kory...Should he be doing that?"

"Oh, shut up!" Kory snarled, kicking Gunthur again.

After that, Gunthur curled up into a tight, protective ball, covering his head as best he could. If he just waited long enough, Kory and his gang would get bored and walk away. They always did. He knew he shouldn't have asked Ceilia to help him, he knew it! Oh, why had he done that?! But it wasn't like he had anyone else to ask. Not since...

And then the tears came. At first, Gunthur tried to hide them, but it was no use. He heard the shouts and jeers of the other boys and knew they had seen. There was nothing he could do now but try to be as uninteresting as possible. The tears mixed with his blood, watering it down until it looked more pink than red. But it still turned the dirt black.

After what seemed an eternity, Gunthur realized that the boys had finally lost interest. Kory left first, and the others soon followed, a few pausing just long enough to deliver a parting blow. Gunthur dared not look up, but remained curled in upon himself until he could no longer hear the last retreating footsteps. Only then did he dare lift his head. Though it had felt like forever, the sun had still not yet sunk fully below the horizon. If he hurried, Gunthur could still make it back to the inn on time and, perhaps, avoid the brunt of Jeran's wrath.

To this end, the boy slowly began to uncoil himself, carefully, fearfully, testing each limb as he extended it slowly. After a moment, he began to work his feet beneath him, but could not find the strength to push himself up. Gunthur fell back, utterly defeated. The tears began anew, blurring his already-hazy vision.

Gunthur failed to detect the rapidly approaching footsteps until their owner reached his side. The boy froze instantly. Oh, no! They must have come back!

But then a cool, gentle hand touched his shoulder, and, miraculously, Gunthur felt his mind clear a bit at the contact. A damp cloth dabbed at the blood on his face, cleaning it away. The tears ceased abruptly, and Gunthur drew back, alarmed and frightened.

"W-what...?"

The man who knelt in the dirt before him rocked back on his haunches, regarding Gunthur steadily through a pair of deep, black eyes. Gunthur took in the man's long, dark hair, pulled back into a tight braid, his sharp, smooth chin and slightly crooked nose, his deeply tanned skin and simple, homespun robe, belted at the waist with a thin length of cord. He had never seen this man before.

"Whob are youb?" Gunthur demanded, his voice sounding thick and unintelligable to his own ears. He spat out another mouthful of blood and wiped his chin on the sleeve of his dirtied shirt.

The stranger regarded Gunthur levelly. "A friend." His voice was as deep and mysterious as those endless eyes.

Gunthur's eyes filled with tears again. He hadn't had any friends since...The boy drowned the rising tears in a flood of anger. "What are you doing here?"

"You looked as though you required assistance." The man looked Gunthur up and down very calmly. "Was I mistaken?"

"Yes!" Gunthur snapped, his fury still raging. "I don't need your help!"

The dark stranger held Gunthur's gaze for just a moment, then nodded once, rose swiftly to his feet, and strode away, the hem of his long robe just high enough to avoid the dust of his passing. Gunthur stared after him. He had not truly expected the man to leave him. Casting about, the boy found the water Jeran had sent him to fetch. He vaguely recalled slipping the pole from his shoulders the instant he spotted Kory, but it seemed impossible that it had escaped the older boys' notice. Relieved that it had, Gunthur forced himself to his feet and stooped to retrieve the pole from which the twin buckets full of water from the spring hung. He swayed unsteadily as he straightened up, but merely gritted his teeth and started forward, rushing to catch up with the tall stranger who seemed almost to...flow, like water, more than walk. A few drops of water splashed the trail from the buckets he carried.

"Hey!" The stranger neither slowed nor turned, but Gunthur rushed to his side anyway. He fell into step beside the man, panting a bit. "Hey, I'm sorry about that. I was really rude."

"You were," the man confirmed with a slight nod. He finally stopped, and Gunthur proceeded past him before turning back. The water sloshed at the sudden halt. "I will accept your apology, if you tell me who those boys were."

Gunthur grimaced and looked down, seeming to shrink to half his true height, which was not overly impressive anyway. "The big one...his name is Kory. He..."

"...does this often," the stranger surmised.

Gunthur chanced a quick glance at him, but he stared off toward the village and failed to notice. "...Yeah..."

"Why?"

"Well...there's this girl..."

The stranger made a very peculiar noise, and Gunthur flicked his gaze up in time to catch the man smothering the last remnants of a hastily suppressed smile. He decided to ignore the reaction.

"Her name is Ceilia. And she's really smart and good with numbers. I asked her for help with my arithmetic homework yesterday...but Kory..."

The stranger nodded, his face an impassive mask. "I see. And this happens often?"

Gunthur shrugged one shoulder. "Well...yeah, I guess..."

"And no one moves to stop it?" The stranger began pacing toward the village, moving slowly, but with the same fluid grace as before. Gunthur walked a step behind him.

"Well...they don't actually...know..."

"You have not deigned to tell anyone?"

"No! Kory would just do it worse if I did!"

"I see." The stranger lapsed into brooding silence for a moment before he tossed Gunthur an unfathomable look over his shoulder. "And no one notices when you show up all bruised and battered like this?" He offered the damp cloth from before.

Gunthur accepted the cloth gingerly and began wiping the blood from his face, steadying his pole with his free hand. It hurt to touch his nose, so he worked around it as best as possible. "No. Not really. Even if they do, I just tell them I fell down."

"You fell down," the stranger repeated, an odd note in his calm voice. "You fell down and managed to bloody your nose, scrap your knees, and bruise your ribs all at once? Either you are the clumsiest boy in the world, or the ground is a more formiddable foe than I realized."

"Um...I fall down a lot...?" Gunthur hazarded, cringing a bit so that some of the water spilled over the edge of one of the buckets.

The man made that wierd noise again. Gunthur recognized it as a badly suppressed snort. "I have seen men fall down cliffs and come out of it less injured than you."

"Well, nobody ever really notices anyway," the boy replied defensively, returning the cloth. "Not since..." Gunthur stopped and looked away quickly, fiercely beating back the tears, but unable to speak past the huge lump that had just settled into his throat.

After a long moment of silence, Gunthur realized that he had stopped walking as well. They stood at the outer edge of the village. The stranger stood over him, watching him with that same, impassive look on his face. The boy felt his cheeks begin to warm. He forced himself to speak, though his voice came out thick with emotion.

"Well, I've got to go...I have to get back to Jeran's before dark...Thanks..." He turned and feld quickly down a cross street, leaving a trail of dark, wet spots on the dusty road.

Coming Soon: Chapter Two: The Midnight Marauder, in which our young hero is visited by a mysterious guest.