The Path Homeward

Part One: Confluence

"The Mercenary"

He came like a ghost, an apparition at dusk, something out of a storybook, save that he was not the knight, he was the villain.

His appearance was unseemly, his boots caked in thick, yellow mud, the rest of him so dusty that he appeared to have been bleached. He walked with a limp so that his bootstraps jangled, and his scabbard slapped against the skin of his thighs, but he didn't appear to care as he wearily dragged himself over the threshold of the Inn.

Once, his hair might have been a dark red, though the sun had caused his hair to fade, and dirty as he was, it made it look almost brittle; as if running your fingers through it would cause it to crumble to dust. That hair was longer than the hair of most men; so long it obscured his black eyes. That likely had something to do with the rest of his appearance, right down to the stubble on his square chin. He was a man who traveled ceaselessly, who didn't have the luxury of bath and razor.

There was an unfriendly look about him, though she wasn't sure what it was. Perhaps it was his grim face, how his black eyes slid over her like an ice floe, no friendliness, no relief, held within their glassy depths. It might have been the way he stood, a hand stroking the hilt of his sword, the way he towered over her despite his limp, an unmistakable tension in between his shoulder blades. It may have even been the way he smelled, of smoke, and blood, and the musk of sweat, though he wasn't the first sell-sword whose pungent odor she'd had the pleasure of sampling.

Yet there was something unmistakably hostile about him, something that made her freeze up and stare at him a long moment, and it wasn't the monstrous canine who sat at his feet, either, staring at her with eerily intelligent eyes.

"You can't bring your, um, dog in here," she said, eyes flickering away from the beast to look back up into the sell-sword's face. "It's against inn policy. We have a stable, if you'd like to keep him there. "

The look he gave her might have curdled blood, and Anna suspected that when he opened his mouth it would be to curse her out, but instead she found him to be … Well, not polite, but certainly more articulate than their usual fare. "I will pay extra to have him with me."

Even his voice was harsh, she noted, though surprisingly deep. He didn't look to have the right sort of build to have that deep voice, though it wasn't as gravely as she was expecting, either. "I'm …" One look at the animal, whose tail had started to beat the ground hopefully, and Anna gave in. "Sure, fine. Anything else?"

He didn't scare her, couldn't scare her. After all, she was an Inn-keeper's daughter. Men more surly than this one had come through here, men who she'd had to beat off with cooking utensils from the kitchen in the back, who'd smelled of booze as well as sweat, and had fouled up the place with their very presence. This man looked to be of the unsociable sort, but as he limped toward her, she had the sudden impression that he was the sort to keep out of the way, and that was the kind of customer her father liked best.

"We are in need of a bath … and a warm meal," as she stepped closer, the smell almost became overpowering; Anna tried to stop her face from scrunching up in disgust.

"And a shave?" she offered, watching as he absently reached up a hand to touch his face.

"Indeed," he muttered, running his hand absently over his face, his manner surprising her a bit – it was almost as if he were surprised to find the stubble on his chin. "I have been out in the wilds for some time. A shave … Certainly cannot hurt."

He spoke more to himself than to her, and Anna saw his dog move to his side, nuzzling its massive snout into the hand that rested limply at his side, the one not constantly caressing the hilt of his blade. She blinked at the beast slowly before shaking her head and smiling invitingly at her guest. "How long will you be staying?"

"I will pay for one night for now," he scratched between his creature's eyes, resting the length of his forearm comfortably on the beast's massive head. "Tomorrow we will discuss further room and board. Right now I simply … Want to sleep …" He trailed off and she realized that he truly did look exhausted, which would make sense if he had been traveling through the highland, as his appearance suggested.

What a queer man, not to take the road.

"Okay, so," she leaned down and hoisted their treasure box onto the counter, followed by the guest register. "Plus dog, you owe me, with the meal, bath, and razor, about … 700 in the standard currency." She leaned toward him despite the smell, keeping a smile on her face. "How're you going to pay?"

The man sighed, though it was more of a soft puff of air escaping through his teeth than an audible noise. Without making a sound, he reached down an untied something from his belt that was hidden underneath the folds of his voluminous cloak. There was a jingling noise, and then a heavy thump as a coin purse was tossed to the counter as if it weighed next to nothing, when really Anna had never seen a purse so bloated with coin in all her life.

Smoothly, he bent forward and carefully selected a few coins, sorting them out in his palm before dropping them gingerly onto the counter. "I trust this will be enough?"

The coins were all gold.

She quickly looked up into his eyes, keeping the shock from her face, though only barely. "I just need you to sign the register, then, Sir, and I'll show you to your room."

She pushed the quill and ink well already on the desk toward him, and flipped open the register to a clean page – After all, he was the first guest that they'd had this week, hand, in fact, for the entirety of this month.

He gave her a long look that she could not read before he reached out and grabbed the quill, quickly scratching his initials into the register. It was a habit of mercenaries, most of them were illiterate, to sign with their initials or an "X", and she supposed this man was no exception to that rule, though he must be truly skilled to make such a large sum on his own.

Pushing the book back toward her, he carelessly gathered his coin purse to secure to his belt loop once more while she placed his contribution into her family's treasure chest and slid it back to its secure holding area. Gingerly, she reached out to grab the set of keys that were by the door to the kitchen, which looked like a gaping maw in the twilight, though she would soon have to light a lamp to feed the hungry man.

"Well, just this way, Sir," she said, glancing to the canine, who stood with a great doggy sigh, allowing Anna to see that he was he man's pack animal as well as companion.

She lead him from the common room, down a side hall where the guest's rooms were, and opened the door closest to the entrance, to make it easier for her brothers to carry him water. "I'll send my brothers with a few washtubs and some hot water for you soon, sir. Expect dinner presently."

And then, Anna left him to his devices.

XxX

He sunk into the water, obliged, for once, to allow himself the luxury of soaking. Mundane tasks like bathing really held no enchantment for one such as him; he truly was too business- like to indulge such childish urges often, but just this once he felt like he had earned it.

Noishe sat in front of the hearth where he had stoked a fire, drying his wet fur in the blaze, staring at him with his keen eyes, as if poking at him for his desire to enjoy himself.

"Hush," he chided. "I have spent the last two weeks hiding in the woods and will have none of your usual backtalk."

Perhaps his sanity was to be questioned, talking to the great canine, who was at least a wolf and a half in height, with bat-like ears, shaggy green and white fur, and a bushy tail that had a way of swaying slowly when the beast was contented. Yet Noishe was his most constant of companions, his most stable of friends, someone upon whom he knew he could always count, even when all others abandoned him.

He looked away from the animal, scanning the room carefully, charting every possible entrance and exit in case of emergency. It was not particularly lavish, the walls were a dull brown and the floor was crude wood, but it had a working hearth and what looked to be a very comfortable bed, all the amenities he imagined he would need. The single window and door would serve as the only entrance and exit to the room, and on the first floor he would have easy enough access to both, should he need to sneak out without his companion for some reason.

It truly was simple, but then again, he was not a man of great need.

He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, allowing the scents of this place to fill his nostrils. Wet dog was currently a prominent scent, though it was overpowered by the smell of cooking meat, and the cool breeze coming in through his window, the smell of the lake land. He chewed on his lip, basked in his other senses, feeling he warm water slowly grow cold as time passed, but at least he could no longer feel the grime clinging to every orifice of his body.

He stood, picking up the towel that had been left on the floor for him, and quickly dried himself off before wrapping it around his waist.

"Noishe, where did they put the hand mirror, did you see?" he looked toward his companion, who motioned toward a small, bedside dresser that he had somehow overlooked during his examination of the room.

He picked it up, reached for the razor they had left, and went about the business of shaving himself, though he imagined it would burn in the morning. Really, razor burn was hardly the worse of pains, his body attested to that, riddled with scars from hundreds of battles, the trophies of his victories and grim reminders of his defeat.

Pleased that he was clean shaven, he returned to the business of finding somewhat clean clothing to wear, replacing his scabbard on his belt and sitting down on the bed, arranging the blade beneath him. It wasn't as soft as it had looked, he discovered, but he cared little, because anything was better than soggy underbrush or the branches of trees (sleeping sitting up was a skill he had acquired long ago).

"Now all that is left is to wait for the food, it seems," he sighed through his nose, mussing up his own wet hair and glancing toward Noishe with a thoughtful expression on his face. "This place, it's … quaint, isn't it?"

Noishe snorted in agreement.

"Yes, that is what I thought, too. Palmacosta and Asgard were both so … lively," he paused, rolling the adjective on his tongue. "This place seems sleepy in comparison, though I find I do not terribly mind."

Hardly, he thought with a snort, listening to the sounds coming from the other room, the people who owned the Inn creeping about, doing their various duties. Once or twice in that time, he home settled, the wood creaking and sighing with age. Such sounds were a comfort to him, a reminder of pleasant places and quaint people from his youth.

"Though something does bother me," he said with a slight frown. "Why are there no other visitors in this Inn?"

This town, though not prone to tourism as was Asgard, and devoid of Palmacosta's urban sprawl, should sill have more visitors than it did, especially foot traffic from the pilgrimages. Many people went to gaze upon he Holy Ground of Kharlan, where the Tower of Salvation stood when he world was blessed by Cruxis, and so people should be heading from Asgard to Hima, and yet …

There was a knock on his door and he stood, answering it, finding the boy who'd brought him the water and the razor staring up at him, a tray of food in his hand. It was some manner of beef, and a crust of bread, as well as a side of vegetables, and a tankard of what could only be assumed to be ale, but that was more than enough for him. Swiftly, he took the tray from the lad, nodded his thanks and shut the door swiftly behind him, returning to the bed to sit and chew thoughtfully.

Noishe, the great mooch, padded over cheerfully to sit at the foot of the bed. He keened at Kratos Aurion, who simply snorted and cast Noishe half the crust of bread. "Fine, you great mooch. Whatever I do not eat, rest assured you can finish."

He kept his promise, leaving the carrots untouched, watching the beast slobber them up as if they were the choicest cuts of beef imaginable to mortal man. Snorting, he lie on the bed, on top of the covers, completely clothed, and closed his eyes, not intending to do anything more than rest his eyes for a few hours, content to let the fire burn itself out.

His last thoughts before he drifted off to sleep were of potential employment he might find if his hunch proved to be correct.

XxX

Anna sat in the common room with Grace, who balanced her infant son Tucker on her hip, watching as her friend mended a pair of her brother's socks with utmost care. Money had been tight around here lately, what with traffic to the Inn being so very slow, so they'd had to make do with what they had, which was becoming less and less as weeks slipped slowly into a month.

If this mercenary stayed, though, it might put some coin in the coffers, so to speak.

Grace, who was prattling on about Tucker's first smile until a moment ago, suddenly grew quiet, and Anna looked up from her work, staring into Grace's pretty blue eyes.

"Who is that?" she asked in a tone that Anna knew all too well, one that almost drew a strangled groan from her, would have if she hadn't known how loyal Grace was to Eren, even as the young mother brushed her blonde ringlets behind her ear.

Anna turned around and almost dropped her sewing needle.

She was not known for being a particular coy woman, she was one of the eldest unmarried young women in the village, but even Anna Irving knew a handsome man when she saw one, as little as she seemed to care. It was hard to believe he was the same man, harder to believe that a simple shave, bath, and change of clothing could do so much for someone's appearance, but apparently it was possible, because the evidence stood before her.

Hair that had looked brittle suddenly looked red and luxuriant, his face, now that it was smooth, appeared to be extremely dynamic and markedly handsome, a face befitting a knight, with a straight nose and that calm expression. His eyes, though, his eyes, nearly black as they were, still suited a bandit, cold and uncaring as they'd been the night before, and just as her interest had waxed, it waned.

"Ah, he's a tenant," Anna explained to Grace with a small shrug, turning her attention back to her needlework. "The first in a month. You should have seen him last night, Gracie. He looked like he stumbled out of hell."

"Is that so?"

Again startled into dropping her needle, Anna spun on the man, who had somehow come up behind her without her noticing. His deep voice was disinterested, but there was purpose written all over his face, as if he knew exactly what he desired from her. Well, as the Inn-Keeper's daughter, and with her brothers busy doing chores, she supposed it was her job to help him.

"Don't do that," she snapped, standing and smoothing out her skirt, her face turning red once she realized she'd been rude to a customer, though he seemed completely nonplussed by her response.

From behind her, she heard Grace snickering, and Anna shot her friend a glare, to which she received nothing but an innocent smile. Thankfully, her guest ignored he exchange.

"How can I help you?" she asked, turning back to him.

"I am going out for a time, but I would like to purchase another three nights," his tone was curt, formal, hardly the polite behavior one usually expected from house guests; she guessed he was the type of man who wasn't used to taking "no" for answer, but then again, swordsman usually were a bit rough around the edges.

"Um, sure," she walked away from the table where she and Grace sat, sharing a cup of tea, and walked up to the counter. "That's … 900 standard for three nights," she informed him, "if you provide your own food."

"And with suppers only?" he inquired, crossing his arms squarely over her chest and leveling her with a look that was half glare, half inquisition.

"1200 standard."

He sighed in a way similarly to last night and proceeded to place his coin purse on the counter once more; she noted it was lighter so he must have some of his coin stashed away in his room, probably hidden. A wise idea, a guy with that much money might get mugged.

But what did she expect? Sell-swords weren't stupid, just pagan.

"Will that be all?"

Similarly to the other day, he nodded, counted the coins for her, and then dropped them on the counter. This time, however, instead of waiting for her to handle the money, he simply strode away, leaving the door to the inn to slam shut behind him. Damnit, she hated rude customers!

Huffing, she dealt with the coins and went back to Grace to sew angrily, casting her friend a disgruntled glance when she began to giggle. "Gracie, it's not funny. I really hate guys like that, who think that just because they wear a sword, they can do whatever they want!"

She just laughed ever harder. "The handsome ones usually are jerks, sweetie," she reached out and patted Anna's hand, a playing glint in her eye. "But it was so great. You went moony for him for about two seconds."

"I did not," Anna puffed up, though her sulking proved she clearly had, and was just being difficult to save face. No one must ever know that she'd shown that kind of weakness or the guys would be all over her like flies to – Well, you know.

"Don't feel so bad. Any girl would get googly eyes over that fine specimen of manhood," Gracie leaned back and shook her head. "You'd be stupid not to." She turned her attention back to her son, wiping a bit of drool from his face, her look fond. "I'm not worried, though; unlike the rest of this town, I have faith in your womanly charms."

Anna snorted. "Oh yes, little tomboy Annie, sure to be an old maid for the rest of her life, taking care of her brothers and father. I'm totally going to net me a fisherman – pun intended."

It was Grace's turn to snort. "If you were more like that around the guys, I'd bet they'd like you more," she pointed out gently as Anna found her needle and went back to mending socks.

"Are you kidding me? Guys want a blushing rose, or a delicate iris, or something …" Anna shrugged. "No thank you, I'm just fine being the old maid who runs the Phoenix Inn for the rest of forever. Dad and the boys are the only men I'll ever need."

They'd had this conversation enough before that Grace knew when not to breach the subject and went on to prattle about how big Tucker was getting and about how, pretty soon, the Rope Maker Guild's strike would be over and how Eren would be working again soon.

And that simple comfort was enough to keep Anna smiling for her friend.

XxX

His dark eyes scanned the people of the village, who gave him a wide berth. That was the way he preferred it – he did not like to be touched – and was more than happy to oblige their image of him as someone remote and intimidating. It wasn't a hard act to keep up, it never had been and after so many years he was almost certain that it truly had become a part of him, a part he could never escape.

He sighed, caressed the leather wrapped hilt of his blade, running his thumb fondly over the pommel. The gesture was a comfort to him, especially without Noishe here to accompany him. Normally, Kratos did not mind having his companion follow him, but in this specific instance, the goal was to remain as inconspicuous as possible.

After all, he was searching for information.

Glancing around, he began to note the layout of this village, though perhaps it was more apt to call it a town, considering its size. Luin was the jewel of Lake Sinoa, the heart of civilization in the wilderness, a prosperous fishing local that sold nearly all of Sylvarant's freshwater fish, though out of necessity it was salted. It had a temperate climate, the people were clean and friendly, and if you enjoyed sailing on small boats, the wonders of Sinoa would certainly serve you well. The place certainly was a gem, a clean and healthy little hamlet, the sort of place that parents would want to raise their children … Were it not for the Ranch.

In truth, Kratos was surprised anyone could still live here with the oppression of that wicked place, which loomed like a giant on some distant horizon, impossible to see beyond the tree line. Out of sight, out of mind, he supposed, though that philosophy seemed foolish given the urgency of the situation.

No matter, he thought with a sigh. I am not here to wonder at the foolishness of the locals, I am here to find employment.

So it was that he came to the docks, watching distant fishing boats bob up and down on the water. It was early enough that they would not be back in with the catch yet, but it would happen, and then Kratos would listen to their gossip.

Rumors were valuable information sources if one only bothered to check the facts.

He leaned against a nearby tree, taking in the expressions of the villagers. Most attempted to ignore him, though a few looked scandalized, and yet others curious or offended. Kratos did not mind the attention as long as they did not approach him for a conversation, he was not a shy man, but he was not exactly a socialite, either.

There were many kinds of people here, though that was to be expected. This town had a varied history, a very interesting one that involved its poor habit of being destroyed and rebuilt, either because of natural disasters or because of the Desians.

But that was not Luin's only claim to fame, no. It kept watch over the Tower of Mana, which had once been a central tourist attraction of the area before it had become too dangerous because of the monsters that had made their home there.

He snorted as a Priest passed and held out a holy symbol to protect himself against Kratos' alleged evil. Garbed in all black as he was (his preferred color), he must have cut an intimidating figure, and the sword strapped to his waist would earn him no favors from the pacifistic Order of Martel.

"A sell-sword?"

The voice drew his attention and his eyes fell to a tan older fellow with too-large ears and a determined expression set onto his weathered face, made to look almost silly by his brown goatee.

"… And you are?" Kratos didn't bother to introduce himself; his blade was the only introduction he had ever needed.

"So then they didn't get to you? You got in?" the man frowned deeply, rubbing a thumb over his hairy chin. "How?"

"... They?" he spoke only after a pause, crossing his arms firmly over his chest; the man sighed in response.

"We'll discuss it later. If you're staying at the Inn, we're bound to run into each other," he turned to leave. "Right now I have to get back to my rounds."

Kratos watched him retreat, turning back to the docks. There really was no point in rushing anything, after all. If he gathered information from the fisherman, he could surely prepare himself for whatever that youth had to say to him; though he already had a "hypothesis", as an old friend of his would say.

So he took to watching, ignoring the stares on his back, staring out at the waters of Sinoa, the ships bobbing up and down on them like apples in a barrel during a Harvest Festival. He could not help but think how peaceful this place was, how wonderfully quaint it was, even as the waters lulled him into a dreamlike state, his mind drifting far away until it was reawakened by the scent of sweat and fish.

A heady odor if there even was one, but Kratos did not mind it, for it meant that all his waiting had paid off.

Indeed, they didn't even notice him as they went about their business, hoisting nets of fish onto the shore with lever and pulley and dropping them to the ground below, where they were scooped up by other mean to be taken gods knew where. The nets once must of writhed with life, but the fish had since asphyxiated, leaving them bursting with nutritious death – not that Kratos particularly minded the thought.

So he watched and listened, observing the men whom he was lost among, men who sung badly out of key even when not drunk, men who smelled and scratched, and cursed at one another; men who were, furthermore, all of different sizes and shapes. They spoke of everything and nothing, though he did manage to gather a few things by listening in, things that would be, under the right circumstances, quiet helpful.

Feeling satisfied, he spun on his heel and silently drifted back to the inn, where, he hoped, supper was being made.

XxX

Everything was boiling, a big, hearty, stew for her boys, two of who were out back chopping wood for the fireplaces inside, the other two who must be soon coming back from their shared patrol of Luin.

Also, for the Mercenary, but she was willing to bet he would be eating in his room again – not that she minded.

I wasn't like she hated the guy, or anything, and she wasn't holding onto how much he had peeved her earlier that day, but really, she wanted to spend time with her boys without some stranger getting in the way. She thought happily of how pleased Cody would be that she was making his favorite dish, complete with garden peas and carrots, and how they would laugh around the dinner table like they usually did.

Her dreams, however, seemed destined to be shattered.

Even from the kitchen she heard it, that when Cody and her father entered they were not alone. Another voice joined to create the melodious din of their chatter, walking into the darkening Inn that doubled as Anna's childhood home. A voice that she recognized from her previous encounters with him; she only barely managed to stifle a frustrated groan once she heard what they were discussing.

"So you picked up on it already, then, huh? I still find that hard to believe …" it was her brother's voice, doubting, as always, critical as only he could be.

"I will admit that I felt inclined to do my research," the shrug in the Mercenary's voice was almost audible. "It wasn't that difficult to discover, honestly. It would stand to reason that the current absence of any visitors other than myself is due to some … great tragedy, such as the ones the men at the docks were discussing."

"You see, Cody, it's just simple reasoning," the sound of flesh slapping clothed back none-too-gently made her wince. She was used to that seemingly friendly yet scolding tone which her father used around guests to let his children know they'd stepped out of line. "Would you like to discuss this further, Mister …?"

"Aurion," the mercenary supplied. "But I do not wish to go by my father's title. Kratos shall suffice for our purposes," there was a very deliberate break in his words, and the lack of active noise other than her stew bubbling disturbed Anna; they were not a quiet family. "I take it you wish to do business with me?"

"Well that's not entirely my father's choice," Cody answered before their father could speak. "You'll have to explain yourself to the Defense Committee, but he can certainly suggest you to them as the solution to our little … problem."

As Anna went to get another bowl resignedly, she could hear disapproval practically dripping from her father's tone, "But I am at leeway to discuss the details with you so you're prepared." There was the sound of a pair of hands slapping together, and in her mind's eye, Anna pictured her father quickly rubbing his hands together in old habit, as if scheming. "Over supper, of course."

As if on cue, Anna burst out from behind the kitchen doors and into the common room, carrying a few bowls of soup. "Settle yourself down around the table, Mr. Aurion, I promise you this is a long tale."

She felt his impossibly cold eyes upon her, and simply taking one look at her brother was enough to confirm that he felt the same – This guy, no matter how skilled he was, was truly creepy. It was good to know she wasn't alone. She and Cody may not agree on much, but when they did, they were good at working together.

"I'll go get the boys and help Annie set up," Cody volunteered as she sat down the few bowls she was carrying at the table in the common room, where they ate every night.

Smiling, he grabbed her elbow, spun her around, and escorted her to the kitchen before their father could stop them from gossiping with a glance. Once they were in the kitchen, the door swung shut behind him, and Cody breathed a sigh of relief. "Okay, so, I'm not the only one who thinks that guy is hella weird?"

Anna snorted, watching as her brother ran his hand over her warm brown eyes. "No. But father is right in telling him," she sighed and began to ladle more stew into bowls. "That guy … You should have seen him, all covered in yellow dirt, like in the highlands. He had a limp yesterday, and now you don't even notice it. That and he has some kind of … Weird, domesticated, attack wolf."

"Attack wolf …?" Cody made a gargling noise and stopped himself from pursuing the question. "Never mind, I don't want to know. No matter how fast he can recover, no matter what he has, he doesn't look or act normal. Even his name is … Kind of strange. Half elfy."

It was Anna's turn to roll her eyes. "Good Martel, Cody. None of that matters," she brushed her hands on her apron and placed her hands firmly on her hips. "What matters is the size of his purse."

"… You saw his purse?" Cody asked in disbelief.

"Yes," Anna said, opening the backdoor to shout at the boys to come in and wash up. "And it's overflowing with coin. I've never seen anything like it in my life. That means one thing and one thing only, since bandits travel in groups and never bother to clean up …"

Cody was silent, dead silent, which is how Anna knew that he got the picture. Walking up, she smiled a mockingly sweet smile and patted his cheek before shoving him more bowls. "I think he's a freaker too, okay? But if he's a useful freaker, who cares?" She laughed as he relaxed into her touch. "Now go deliver these before Father starts asking questions."

XxX

"So, you really are a merc," the young man, Cody, mused. "And from what you've said, a skilled one, too.

He was examining a coin that Kratos had pulled out upon request. The girl must have told him about the size of his purse, though he could not blame her; he really did doubt that they had seen anyone like him before. His height and his hair certainly made him stand out in a crowd, as well as his audacity to carry a sword when The Church expressly discouraged such things, and in some places, "discouragement" was as good as excommunication.

"I was paid by the Asgard Pilgrimage Tour Services to escort a group," he explained. "As you can see, it is Palmacostan gold."

"And you got this much from one Pilgrimage?" Cody's voice was breathless, not accusatory; it was hard for him to feasibly imagine this much money.

Imagine his reaction if he knew Kratos had more hidden in his room.

Kratos snorted, both at Cody's comment, and in amusement at his own train of thought. "The Governor General's son was in that tour. It was of utmost importance for him to be protected from the monsters on the road to Asgard, and I proved myself more fit for the job of protecting his son after a … Heh … Misunderstanding with his guard."

Ironic, wasn't it? That the only city with a proper militia also was home to the Martel Cathedral, the center of the Martel Faith. Kratos would wonder why they let such "unchecked violence" go on underneath their nose – If he cared, though he could hazard a few guesses.

They stared at him in mute shock, and he sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Well, in any case, I am in high demand. If I am good enough for the Governor General … "

The man with the goatee, Drake Irving, Kratos had learned, hummed and nodded, stroking the fuzz on his face with great concentration. "Yes, I think … I'm going to invite you to the council meeting tomorrow, where we can discuss your employment with the Defense Committee, but I really am interested in hiring you. What do you think, Cody?"

While Cody deliberated, still marveling at the coin Kratos had shown him, the Mercenary leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes and ignoring the stare of the woman upon him. He hated it when people did that, concentrated on him as if he were a subject of interest. He could take abashed stares, even glares of hatred or glances of fear, but he could not tolerate curiosity. It made his skin crawl, made him want to leap out of his own body and fly very far away.

It was not because he was a shy man, hardly. Kratos was painfully abrasive. He cared for nothing and no one, except for Noishe, and took pleasure in being a social recluse. No, he hated that kind of staring because it meant that someone might try to get attached to him, and he loathed the idea of people depending on him for personal reasons.

He was a mercenary, not a charity worker. There was a reason that was his profession, and not a Priest or a school teacher.

"I think … I think that we should tell him the job, and if he agrees …" Cody took a deep breath, handing the coin back to Kratos without looking at him, his eyes locked firmly on his father. "If he agrees, then we can let him in on the meeting tomorrow."

"I agree," Drake grinned and turned back to Kratos, the smile disappearing from his face. "Okay, so we have a problem," he took a deep drink of his ale. "You know how you're the only outside visitor in town?"

Kratos did not answer, hoping that Drake did not expect an honest answer. Certainly, the question seemed rhetorical.

"Right," Drake took another drink. "There's a reason for that."

Kratos hummed softly and leaned forward slightly, patting the hilt of his blade. "And that problem is driving away visitors, correct?"

"Well … Yes. There's a group of … Of raiders … " Drake rambled on, explaining the situation in some detail, and though Kratos made notes on his theorizing, he decided to follow his own leads later; he trusted his judgment far more than this man's.

Tomorrow, very early in the morning, before the Defense Committee meeting, he would rise and explore the parameter of the city, search for the movements of the raiders. After all, he was certain he could persuade the men of his city to hire him.

"That is enough," Kratos finally said. "I accept your proposal."

Drake and Cody exchanged a look. Cody looked annoyed, Drake surprised, but they both looked somewhat relieved.

"Now, if you excuse me," he rose, grabbing his meal. "I would like to finish eating in peace."

And, with a soft swish of his cloak, he strode back to his room, slamming the door behind him.