The past two months had quite possibly been the dreariest ones in Nicolas' entire life. The garrison grounds were dry and dusty after almost no rain for many, many weeks and the heat, most summers humid but comfortable, was scorching and dry. The heatstroke had a calming effect on the local crime: people preferred to stay inside, or at least in the shade, rather than engaging in any physical activity. This, of course, was true for most of the soldiers in the garrison as well. Their exercise had been halved not once but twice and patrols were done more out of custom than actual need. Fortalan was not a large city and now it seemed even smaller as it lay in a summer slumber, its streets empty and quiet in the afternoon.
This, however, was likely to change very soon, Nicolas thought as he patrolled the town center. Water supplies were running low and people feared that their wells would dry up. The river which usually flowed majestically through the town on its way to the sea was well on its way to becoming no more than a timid creek. Without water the citizen would turn on the nobility and the chevaliers, and the garrisons would have to keep the citizens in check, with violence if necessary, because that was their job.
Nicolas did not look forward to it.
He had been with the garrison for some time now and had done well. There was hardly any room for promotion, especially not for a man like himself, almost less than a commoner, but swordsmanship came easy to him and he had made many friends among the other, older soldiers and so he had managed to make his way from almost errand boy at one of the perimeter patrol stations to city guard. All things considered, he had done well, and as he made his way back to the soldiers' quarters he felt content.
It was not until he was almost at the garrison gates that he noticed that something was amiss. Tension hung in the air, a silent but almost palpable sensation, and it was not until he entered the yard that he saw the reason why.
It seemed as if every soldier off duty had emerged from their shadowy realms, in spite of the scorching hot, sun-flooded yard. Sure, they stood back, talking to each other in low hushed whispers in the small shadows of the great walls that surrounded the garrison yard. Their voices blended together, sounding almost like the murmur of the faraway sea, and Nicolas could not help but imagine the hundred or so soldiers as so many gossiping fishwives, scrutinizing the stranger in their midst.
Because there was one.
At the center of attention stood a single man, his back straight and his attention fixed right ahead of him, his posture so much a warrior's that there could be no doubt about his profession. From where Nicolas were he could not see the man's face, but he noticed the small sack by the man's feet – presumably containing all of his earthly belongings – as well as the expensive-looking armor and the huge greatsword strapped to the man's back. Both the weapon and the armor shone in the sun and Nicolas thought it must be unbearably hot.
"What's going on?" he asked one of the men standing close by, his own whisper mingling with the others.
"I don't know" the man answered, not taking his eyes from the stranger. "He refuses to put his errand to anyone but the Captain."
"But the Captain won't be back until nightfall, if even then" Nicolas said, his eyes too now focused on the man in the fancy armor. The Captain of the guard was one of the few people allowed to speak to the nobility on the villagers' behalf – not entirely a privilege, Nicolas thought, judging by the long days spent and the few changes actually brought about – and with the water supply rapidly shrinking the meetings had increased in both number and duration. And it was still many hours until sundown.
"How long has he been standing there?" he asked.
"Since patrol started."
"But that's over two hours."
"I know. They say he hasn't had a drink or anything since then. There's a betting going on."
"So that's why everyone's hanging around like this."
"Yup. Only those on patrol who are missing, as far as I can tell."
Nicolas made a non-committal sound and left the man in order to circle the square and get a better view of the man in its middle. It was hard to get an idea of the man's build beneath the armor, but seeing as such a suit demanded great physique it was safe to assume that it was not a meek farm boy standing there. The hair was a dark brown color and the man sported a moustache, probably in order to seem older, because even though he looked pretty stern Nicolas thought the stranger close to himself in age. A man, certainly, but a young one all the same. No one the Captain would usually bother with, even when not engaged in political debate.
It was more an automatic movement than an actual decision when Nicolas made his way to one of the two spring fountains built into the stonewall surrounding the courtyard. The water skin he always carried with him, essential on days like this, was soon filled with cool water and with it he made his way out onto the yard.
He could feel the eyes of the other soldiers on him as he walked, heard them first grow silent and then whispering again with renewed energy. The stranger saw him as well, Nicolas walked almost straight up to him, but there was no discernible reaction – not until Nicolas stopped a few feet in front of him and spoke.
"Awfully hot day for wearing armor like that" Nicolas said and nodded, not caring to hide his impression in the casual remark.
"If you say so" the stranger replied, obviously not intending to carry on the conversation. Nicolas decided to ignore that and instead offered his water skin.
"Would you care for some water?"
The man looked at him curiously, as if trying to determine whether this was a jest or in earnest. While he did look a bit hot he did not seem awfully bothered by it. At last though he seemed to have reached a decision and accepted the water.
"Thank you" he said and put the skin to his lips. Nicolas watched as the water was gulped down in deep drafts, and took the water skin back when it was emptied. "It was refreshing."
"I only just arrived" Nicolas explained, even though the stranger had asked him anything. "The others said you hadn't had anything to drink since you got here."
"I was not offered anything" came the simple reply, and Nicolas was a little taken aback by it.
"I guess they're thinking that you're putting on some kind of show."
"I am here to see the Captain of this garrison." There was a certain edge to the man's voice, almost but not entirely hidden under his calm demeanor.
"He won't be back for many hours."
"So I am told."
"Many hours in scorching sun. In heavy armor" Nicolas pointed out.
"I will wait here until he returns."
"Are you sure?"
Nicolas knew a sharp edge when he felt it, and an iron will when he encountered it. So he smiled and let his shoulders relax.
"Okay. Well, I have to get back and be hassled by all those people whose bets I just ruined, but I'll come back later. You're going to need more than just a few mouthfuls of this if you're going to continue to make your stand." He paused only briefly, taking a half-step backwards. "So, um, I'll see you around."
There was no reply from the stranger, but when Nicolas had turned and walked a few paces toward the waiting crowd, he heard the other man's voice again. They were soft-spoken words, like an afterthought come out loud.