Chapter 1: Meeting the first one
Sir Niles, the Clever, had the opinion that when King Maxwell was annoyed, he could be very annoying. He was lucky to be good at pretending the King had his full attention when, in fact, his mind was dedicated to registering just the key-words proffered by the King, while noticing the public's reaction to what was being said.
Sir Niles was the best knight among the ones in this court and man of the King's personal confidence; if he wanted, he could refuse to listen to Maxwell's diatribe to the other knights, counselors and servants. In Niles' opinion, all of that public talking was a loss of time. However, he knew how important his actions were to the people's morale, so he stood there, his eyes icy, his expression and posture hard and martial.
When the crowd was finally dispensed, King Maxwell came to talk personally to him.
'You've heard the rumors, for sure'.
'Yes, my King. Strangers were seen in our forest'.
'And your plans are…?'
'I have already sent a group to investigate'.
'When will you have their discoveries?'
'I already have'. Sometimes it was difficult not to smirk or roll his eyes. He was not called 'the Clever' for nothing. 'They confirmed two different presences. One of them seems to be interested in mapping our forest; the other is rather elusive'.
King Maxwell pouted. 'I don't like this…', he paced, worried. 'We must defend our land, Niles. We received it in peace, and we must keep it like this. Our families were honored by this mission, and we can't let the tradition be forgotten'.
'I intend to make my own expedition tonight'.
'That's great, Sir Niles. You have my blessing!'
The knight nodded and turned to leave. There was a limit for the amenities, after all. He had a mission to accomplish.
Once the night turned the forest into a mass of darkness, Sir Niles reached the first trees.
It was his duty to guarantee the security of the kingdom's wilder forest, but he really loved this expeditions: he used to go alone, listening attentively to the sounds coming from the shadows, stopping to search for the unique sensation of another invisible presence.
The moon was specially shining, and he had to be cautious, even if it was highly unlikely he would find something or someone so close to the border of the forest.
This relatively calm situation gave him the opportunity to think about his most recent personal dilemma.
He was 40 years old, and for the first time in his life he was taken by the impression his existence had no purpose.
Of course, he knew his importance to the King and to the maintenance of respect and sense of security to the population. He was an example to the youth and a kind of God among younger knights. His family had centuries of tradition keeping that part of the territory out of reach for foreigners, under orders of the Royal Family.
However, for years this honor has made him untouchable: men don't want to be his friends, but his followers; women were afraid of him and the rumors around his name.
He knew the legends about him. He knew people thought he spent his nights wandering the forest, chasings foreigners and sending them away. He had even heard he was a sorcerer of some kind, immortal and able to defeat hundreds of men, commanding an army or alone.
It was real he had defeated a lot of men during battles, sometimes really by himself, but he did that because he was a good strategist and an ambush expert.
The question was: his fame was worth this life of solitude? A fame based on half truths, but a solitude that was all real?
Niles didn't know what he was looking for, but he suspected it was some sort of companion – someone, man or woman, who would understand him, be interested in him and not in his abilities as a warrior … someone he could trust with his heart and, if God blessed him, with his body…
He never had anything like this, and that was the only thing he really wished at this point of his life.
A weak and tremble light, almost half an hour of walking later, made him stop his musings and be in full alert.
It was a campfire, no doubt. Probably, his first aim was right ahead.
Sir Niles got closer and saw a brunette woman seated on a cloth, her hands close to the fire, visibly warming herself. She was not hiding nor seemed worried of being seen, so he just walked around the area she was, to make sure there was no one else with her, and called her attention from the darkness.
'Lady? May I get closer?'
Her head snapped at the sound, and she took a suspicious instance. 'Who is there?'
'I'm Sir Niles, honored servant of this Kingdom. My King counts on me to keep this forest free of any dangerous characters'.
Some moments of silence. Then she answered. 'How can I be sure you are being truthful?'
'I swear for my honor, Lady. God's eyes are upon us, and I would never lie under his vigilance'.
'All right, come over'.
He went, slowly to not frighten her. They greeted each other from a distance, and she offered a piece of cloth for him to seat across her, on the other side of the fire.
'I hope you don't mind, Lady, but I intend to know where you are from, and why you are alone in this forest', he said, accepting her offerings.
She was already seated, warming her hands again. 'Is this a kind of investigation?'
'This is one. Does it disturb you?'
'No, not at all', she waved her hand. 'Just wanted to be sure. You know, my family wanders in this forest for centuries, and no one ever bothered us. I've heard about you, the knight who wanders in the forest at night, but never could believe, because, you know, if cousin Ira can walk at night with that shining dress he loves so much and never be approached by you, it was probably you were not real. However, …'
She kept going on and on, and Niles noticed it was a good occasion to do what he usually does with the King: listen to key-words, and observe reactions.
Soon it was clear to him she came from a family of traditional herb collectors and sellers, and that it was her first mission so far from her native village. She was, in fact, very far from home, and her accent and occasional word choice proved him she was not being specially worried about something she should hide from him.
Her body posture told him she was being open and honest, too: she talked quickly and impulsively, telling stories, explaining things about people he didn't know, commenting the success of her mission until now; she even made some complains on the lack of structure on the forest, for the traditional workers do their job…
Niles realized he was smiling at her and even almost sharing her laughs. It was rare to him – he never bonded to people, specially people he had found so recently.
She seemed to be warm and easy to trust.
And she was beautiful, too. Not graceful or elegant, but rather lovely and enjoyable.
Was it possible she was his calling? The one he wished?