"Ompf!" Selene gasped as she landed hard on her rear.
Collecting her wits and her spilled book, Selene looked up to see what had knocked her off her feet and her heart nearly stopped. Looming over her was something straight out of her nightmares.
The figure she had run into, though not overly tall, was nonetheless imposing. He was clad completely in black save for a pair of dark blue armguards on each forearm. The loose-fitting tunic reached to his ankles like a robe with four slits running from the waist through the hem revealing black pants underneath. A simple sword hung from his belt.
Aside from the armguards, the only feature that stood out was a silver broach in the shape of a crescent moon that fastened the cloak around his neck. But what really frightened Selene was that she couldn't see his face. He had drawn his hood so low over his eyes that it completely overshadowed his face.
"Kindly watch where you're going," a thankfully human voice admonished from underneath the hood. Turning away from her, he resumed stroking the big bay next to him as the horse drank from the stream running by.
"I'm sorry," Selene stammered as she picked herself back up. "I was just reading this book and—"
"So I noticed," the man her cut off sharply. "Hence you ran into me. Perhaps it would be wise of you to focus on the task at hand instead of having your head in the clouds."
"Hey my head's not in the clouds!" Selene shot back, feeling herself flushing.
"I see," the man commented, still focusing on his horse. "So you make it a habit to run into people who are minding their own business? In that case, I suggest you cease. It is quite irritating."
"I do not," Selene retorted, full blush in effect. "Besides, you could have moved."
"Then you would have run into my horse, who is far less forgiving than I," the man dryly replied. "In any event, I didn't see you coming."
"Then you weren't paying attention either," Selene triumphantly pointed out.
"On the contrary," the man loosened the saddle, "I was paying attention to my horse as I should. You, however, were not paying attention to where you were going as you should have. Do try to be more careful in the future."
"Well I'm sorry," Selene apologized lamely, not really sure of what else to say. "Are you new here or something? Because I don't recall ever seeing you here before."
"That is because you haven't," the stranger flatly answered, completely removing the bay's saddle.
"So you're new then?" Selene furrowed her eyebrows.
"The logic would follow thus."
"Okay then," Selene rocked on her toes and awkwardly stared up at the sky. "So, uh, welcome to Lakeside. My name is Selene, by the way."
"Selene?" that seemed to get the stranger's attention. He set the saddle down and scrutinized her from the shadows. Out of habit, Selene dropped her eyes.
"What an unusual name," he observed.
"Yeah, I get that a lot," she shifted uncomfortably as she felt his gaze burn through her. For some reason, she felt like he was peering into her soul. Selene hoped he wouldn't notice the other thing that people found unusual about her.
Changing the subject, she asked, "What's your name?"
The traveler seemed to pause for a moment, as if he had to think to remember his own name.
"Jared," he finally said. "My name is Jared."
Fifteen minutes later, Selene pushed open the door to her house. The house was dark so her father wasn't back yet. Either he was still working in their garden or perhaps making a house call to some poor infirmed person. She guessed that he probably wouldn't be back until dark.
Glancing at the fireplace, she considered lighting a fire but ultimately decided against it. It was still early autumn so it was plenty warm in the house without a fire. Curling up in a chair next to a window, she began to read her book.
But her heart just wasn't in it, which she found ironic as the book was the whole reason she had gone into town in the first place. Selene would get a few paragraphs before her mind would inevitably wander back to that brief encounter on the road home.
What had she done to offend him? What had she done to anyone else, for that matter? Why was it that everyone hated her? Why didn't parents let their children play with her when she was younger? Why wouldn't anyone acknowledge her on the street unless she literally ran into them?
Deep down Selene knew the answer, but that didn't help the loneliness that was an ever-present part of her existence. She hadn't asked to be born this way but it seemed like every day she was punished as if she had committed some heinous crime. It wasn't fair, she lamented to herself, but there wasn't anything she could do about it. What was, was.
Sadly she scanned the bookshelves, knowing that they were the closest things she had to friends and the closest things she ever would. People would always reject her, like that stranger did.
Absently she fingered the pendant of her necklace. It was the only she had that reminded her of her mother and Selene's memories of her were few. Somehow wearing it connected her to a woman she hadn't seen since she was five and that made her feel better or worse. As much as she loved her father, Selene desperately wished that her mother was here to talk her through her struggles.
Glancing out the window, she realized that the shadows were getting long and that she probably should begin cooking dinner. Although she and her father shared a lot of the housework, Selene liked to do what she could to help him out. Looking back up at the books, she felt a smile tug at the corners of her mouth. She wasn't completely alone; there was one person that she could absolutely count on.
An hour later as she finished stewing the soup, that person walked through the door: her father Max.
"Smells good honey," he inhaled deeply.
"Dad, you're home!" Selene exclaimed, giving her father a fierce embrace.
"Good to see you too," he returned the hug. "What do you have cooking?"
"A potato-carrot soup," Selene answered. "I figured we could dip the old bread in it. What did you do today?"
"Jonathan's little girl wasn't feeling well," Max explained as he grabbed a couple of bowls from the cupboard. "I dropped by and took a look."
"How is she?" Selene queried.
"Just a mild cold, nothing serious," Max shrugged. "I prescribed some herbs and told him to give her a lot of rest."
"That's my dad," Selene beamed. "Saving lives every day."
"It was just a cold, so let's not get carried away," Max grinned nonetheless. "How was your day?"
"I got a new book," Selene answered flatly, her visage dropping.
Gently Max set his wooden bowl down on the counter. "I recognize that look," he told his daughter. "What happened?"
Sighing deeply, Selene recounted her mishap with Jared on the road home. Max listened quietly and thoughtfully as his daughter poured out her frustration with life.
"What is wrong with me?" Selene clenched her fists. "Why is it that people seem to just hate me?"
"I'm certain they don't hate you," Max replied.
"They do though," Selene countered. "I have no friends here. The only person besides you that acknowledges my existence is the bookshop owner and that's only because I give him the most business. I am the only 25 year old woman here that is single. I couldn't get a date if I paid for it," Selene miserably looked up at her father with big, despondent eyes.
"It's my eyes, isn't it?" she asked when Max said nothing. "People think I'm cursed; some unnatural spawn of the underworld, don't they? That's why mothers keep their kids as far from me as possible. It's why whenever I look people in the eye they act like I'm going to incinerate them or worse."
Max wanted to tell his daughter that that wasn't true, but that would be a lie. He had heard the whispers of his "demon-child"; a few of the more sympathetic people had actually expressed sympathy for his bad luck. It infuriated him that these ignorant backwoods peasants didn't know what Selene's unnatural eyes really meant. She was the direct opposite of a demon-child.
But to tell them the truth would not solve anything. In fact, it would make things worse, far worse. Even telling Selene would very risky. Max loved his daughter dearly, but she was still young and naïve and one slip of the tongue would destroy their peaceful existence. Selene may not have many friends, but she wasn't running for her life either.
"I'm sorry Selene," he hugged her. "I can't imagine how hard it must be for you; but I'm not going anywhere."
"I know," Selene hugged her father back. "I just wish I could make one friend; someone who could look past my eyes and just see the real me. I thought maybe this stranger could be that, but he's just like everyone else."
"Who says you can't?" Max released her. "He's new in town and Lakeside isn't known for being friendly to outsiders."
"He hates me," Selene sighed, ladling out the soup.
"I wouldn't go that far," Max disagreed. Chuckling, he added, "Although you didn't exactly make the best first impression."
Selene had to laugh at that, picturing how she must have looked sprawled out on the ground. "I guess I didn't."
"Besides," Max pointed out, "you may have just caught him in a bad mood or at a bad time. People are often more short-tempered after a long trip. Give him another chance and you might find a friend after all."
Encouraged, Selene set her bowl down at the table and grabbed a chunk of bread. "You know," she looked thoughtfully at her father, "I think I'll do just that."
It was another two days before Selene had an reason to go back into town. Her father was doing a follow-up on Jonathan's little girl and Selene realized that they were out of usable bread. Grabbing a basket, she went into Lakeside.
While she was perusing the various loaves of bread, she saw a familiar figure in her periphery. Looking up, Selene caught sight of Jared disappearing into the nearby tavern/inn that was the town's popular hot spot. Remembering Max's advice, she quickly purchased a couple loaves and ran into the tavern after him.
Immediately upon entering she knew it was a bad idea. A second after she had stepped through the door, all activity ceased. People stopped talking; the bard's hand froze over his lyre; even the bartender froze in the middle of drying a glass. Selene could feel the same question resonating from the crowd: what is that doing here?
The only person who seemed completely unbothered by her unexpected entrance was Jared who sat alone in a corner booth, hood still obscuring his face. He was sipping on a glass of water and reading a book, completely indifferent, it seemed, to the world around him.
Selene steeled herself, remembering that she wasn't here for them. Her showing up in the tavern wasn't going to change their decidedly negative opinion of her; Jared's opinion, on the other hand, was still up in the air. Today Selene was determined to make a new friend.
Striding confidently past the astonished crowd, she plunked herself down opposite Jared. Behind her, the bard began to play again and conversation returned more or less to normal, although she could still feel the frequent stares and glares.
"Hi," she said cheerfully.
"May I help you?" Jared replied politely but curtly, without looking up from his book.
"Not really," Selene answered. "I figured since you're new here, you could use a friend."
"Believe me I am the last person you want to be friends with," Jared blandly replied turning a page.
"In this town, you are the last person," Selene observed.
"So I noticed," Jared commented. "You don't seem to be very popular."
"The people here aren't exactly accepting of outsiders, like you and me," Selene explained.
"You're not from here?" Jared questioned, a hint of curiosity in his voice.
"Not exactly," Selene replied. "I was born in Jermelek but my dad and I moved here when I was five after my mom died."
Strangely that seemed to get Jared's attention. Raising his head, he scrutinized Selene again from the shadows. On instinct she immediately looked down.
"Interesting," Jared said after a pause, but left it at that.
"So where are you from?" Selene pressed.
"Anywhere and everywhere," Jared answered and returned his attention to his book.
"I guess you traveled a lot then," Selene supposed. Jared just nodded.
"You're not much for conversation, are you?" Selene raised an eyebrow.
Resisting the urge to give up and walk away, Selene turned her focus to the book Jared seemed so interested in. "What are you reading?" she queried.
Sighing, Jared straightened up. "It's a very old book that I'm certain you've never heard of," he informed. "It is the annals of the Kalashonian Emperors, if you must know."
"Kalashonian Emperors?" Selene cocked her head.
"For two thousand years, Kalashon ruled over an empire that spanned the world," Jared answered. "It was the Golden Age of this world, a time of peace, prosperity, and knowledge. Naturally the Kalashonian kings were called emperors. This is a record of their deeds."
"What happened?" Selene curiously asked.
"It's a long story," Jared replied. "But a little over a thousand years ago, the empire crumbled. Kalashon was reduced to what it is today and the nations of the world were formed."
"That's interesting," Selene remarked. "Can I read your book?"
"Doubtful," Jared responded with a shake of his head. He tipped the book forward so Selene could see the pages.
"Oh," Selene disappointedly said. It was written in a completely different language than she had ever seen. Even the letters were different. They were simple and firm yet elegant characters, but unfortunately completely unreadable for her.
"What is that?" she wondered.
"It is the high language of Kalashon," Jared informed her. "There are very few who can still read it and it is almost never used. But once upon a time it was the common tongue of the entire world."
"You know a lot," Selene observed.
"I've picked up a thing or two," his shoulders rose and fell in a shrug.
"Well it's really cool to see someone else who appreciates literature," Selene added, fishing in her bag. "I was just reading this book," she pulled out the volume and slid it over to him. He picked it up, flipped through a few pages before returning it to her.
"Read it," he emotionlessly said.
"Isn't it great?" she beamed excitedly.
Selene blinked. She hadn't expected that particular reply.
"No?" she repeated. "How can you not like it? It's got action, adventure, romance. It's amazing."
"It's deceiving," Jared countered coolly. "You read that book and think that adventures are these fun little journeys where everybody gets to the end safe and sound and live happily ever after in a castle."
"What's your point?" Selene sat back in her seat and scowled.
"My point is that isn't how real life goes," Jared explained. "Real life adventures are horrible, miserable affairs that you can't wait to be over with. They are sleeping on hard ground, freezing to death, and perpetually hungry. They are being so exhausted you can barely stand but too terrified to sleep."
"But there's always the happy ending, right?" Selene felt a pit forming in her stomach.
"There is never a happy ending," Jared shook his hood. "You don't all get to the end. Friends, family, people you care about die on the way. When you get to the end, people don't cheer you as a hero and there is no castle waiting. At best you get a pat on the back before you get sent on your way."
"How would you know?" Selene demanded angrily. This guy was beginning to seriously irritate her.
"Because I've been on more adventures than you could read about," Jared answered. "And I can assure you that there is always a price to pay. You see that's what these fairy tales don't tell you. In these books, someone else always pays the piper in the end, never the heroes. But in real life, it is the other way around."
"I don't believe you," Selene sniffed haughtily. "One day I'm going to leave this place and have an adventure of my own and I am going to have a happy ending."
"Foolish girl," warned Jared. "Stay here where it is safe and quiet. Do not wish for an adventure for one will find you and then you will beg for this little existence."
"We'll see," Selene huffed, stuffing her book back in her bag and standing up.
So much for making a friend. This man was by far the most depressing person she'd been around. Selene almost wished he would be content to ignore her like all the rest instead of trying to dash the one thing she clung to for hope.
She was so frustrated that she almost didn't see the big man in front of her.
"What have we here?" the man asked maliciously. "Why I do believe it is our little demon-child Selene. What are you doing here? Come to pay me a visit?"
"I don't have time for this, Arioch," Selene grouched to the town mason and bully. He was one of the very few people that acknowledged Selene although she could do without his attention.
"I don't think so," Arioch barred her way. "I was wondering when you'd come around to give up that pretty little behind of yours."
The way he ogled her made Selene cringe. Trying to push past him she said, "I really need to get home."
"What? You don't have time for me but you have time for that outsider?" roared Arioch and he grabbed her wrist.
Selene was normally a gentle person. But coupling Arioch's advances with Jared's depressing opinions, she had had about enough. Anger surged through her and she felt herself getting hot, really hot.
Arioch must have felt it to because he suddenly jerked away from her, flexing his hand.
"That little witch burned me," he hissed. Backhanding her across the face, Arioch sent her sprawling across the floor. With murder in his brown eyes, he stomped towards her. "Witch!" he yelled at her, "I'm going to make you pay for that. You'll be screaming like a stuck pig before I'm through with you."
By now they had drawn the attention of everyone in the tavern but no one moved to help her. Partially, Selene guessed, out of fear of Arioch and partly because no one really cared to come to her rescue.
"Leave her alone," a low and deadly calm voice commanded Arioch just as he groped her bosom. Surprised, he jerked back around to face the voice, ripping Selene's necklace off in the process. Selene gave a yelp and grasped at the jewelry which had fallen at the feet of the speaker. Tracing her eyes up his boots, Selene found Jared standing over them, arms crossed.
"I'll deal with you in a minute, outsider," Arioch snapped as he made another grab at Selene.
Jared caught his wrist halfway. "I will not ask again," he warned icily.
"Let go of me," Arioch tried to twist away, but Jared held firm.
"You want a fight, outsider?" demanded Arioch. "Then let go of me."
"As you wish," Jared released him.
Arioch stumbled back a couple of steps and then took a powerful swing at Jared's head. The stranger simply leaned out of the way and the punch sailed harmlessly past.
"That," Jared laconically commented, "was very foolish."
Arioch punched again and again Jared merely stepped out of the way. Arioch's third blow the stranger caught in his hand. Then he struck.
Jared first twisted Arioch's wrist, popping it out of joint. The mason's eyes went wide as pain coursed through his nerves but Jared was not finished yet. While Arioch was distracted with his wrist, Jared took a step in and then brought his left boot crashing down on Arioch's left knee. With a sickening crunch, the joint collapsed as the blow tore almost every ligament in his knee. Shrieking in pain, Arioch crumpled the floor in front of his dumbfounded companions.
Selene was in just as much shock as them. She had never seen anyone stand up to Arioch, let alone beat him in a fight. Yet Jared had done so with the ease of taking a drink.
Selene was so busy trying to process what had just happened that she almost didn't notice Jared placing his right foot across Arioch's neck. With horror, Selene realized that he was going to kill the mason. While Arioch was a bully, drunk, and an all-around pain, she didn't want to see him killed.
"Wait, sir, please," she begged grabbing the edge of Jared's cloak. She didn't know why she suddenly called him sir; there was just this sudden aura of power and command about him that she couldn't describe. It was unlike anything she had ever seen before. "Sir" was the only appropriate thing she could think of to call him.
Slowly Jared turned his hood to face her. From her vantage point she could see the bottom of his stubbly chin. Selene felt two feet tall staring back into the face of power. "What is it?" he asked in a clear but lethal voice.
"Don't kill him, please," Selene pleaded. "He isn't worth it and I don't want that on my conscious."
Jared returned his attention to the petrified man on the floor beneath him. For a terrible moment Selene thought Jared would ignore her and kill him anyway. Arioch must have too because he closed his eyes and Selene thought she saw tiny tears come out of the corners.
But eventually he relented, pulling his boot away from the man's neck. Arioch began sobbing uncontrollably, wincing as his wrist and knee were jostled.
"Do any of you have a problem?" Jared demanded of Arioch's friends.
"Uh, no sir," they shook their heads in unison.
"Good," Jared replied before kneeling down next to Arioch. "And you," he whispered in a glacial tone loud enough for Selene to hear, "remember that you owe her your life because had she not said anything I surely would have killed you." Straightening up, he addressed Arioch's friends, "Get him out of here before I change my mind." Nodding, they helped Arioch up and took him away.
"You should probably go home," he suggested to Selene who was still trying to comprehend what had just happened. Suddenly Jared was back to being just Jared, a simple traveler.