He was alone on the road. He carried a sack with a small round of cheese and a half loaf of stale bread harder than the packed dirt beneath his feet. He used a walking stick and wore a long, tattered red cloak that covered a meager shirt and pants and it all barely kept the wind from blowing clean through his bones. There wasn’t much to him in truth. At least physically. His once thick beard was now white and thinning as his hair had done a few decades prior. He was old, but through the years he had been attentive and sought knowledge in everything. Therefore, despite his vagabond appearance, his eyes were quick and bright, and his mind doubly so.
His boots were worn near through the sole, but he kept treading along. He would need a new pair come winter if he could scrounge enough money to buy some. This he doubted would be possible as winter was approaching and he was about to be robbed.
They were still hanging back a distance, but they began following him a half mile back. They hid in the trees, but his quick mind picked out the smallest unnatural sounds. Or rather, human sounds. There were three of them by his calculation. He may have been able to teach two a lesson. Three were a bit much and he didn’t have the energy today so he waited patiently for them to suppress their cowardice long enough to attack him. Perhaps they’d leave him be, but that thought was left on the road a quarter mile back.
He didn’t say a word, or change his gait, though he did stop once already thinking that doing so would tip them off, but they proved less intelligent than he first realized. So he waited. After another half mile passed and he began to grow impatient and was ready to have it over with so he stopped at a suitable stone by the road and pretended to catch his breath. It worked.
Two of the young men burst out of the trees. The old man never turned to face them. He didn’t feel up to acting like a scared old traveler today. The larger of them drove a knife in his back. He felt the iron split his flesh and push further into his torso. He found the attack quite rude but didn’t complain. He let out a small umph and fell to the ground. He could now act dead and get the mugging finished with no further effort on his part.
“Why’d you do that Tom?” The youngest of them said as he caught up.
“Shut it. He can’t struggle now can he? Search him Dil.”
“Why do I have to search him? You’re the one who ran a knife in him. Where’d you get that anyway?”
“Don’t worry about where I got it. Just search him. Be quick about it. Someone might be along soon.”
“I ain’t touching him now. He’s all bloody, and blood don’t come off the hands so easy.”
Tom growled, “I got to do everything? Fine. None of you is getting anything off him then.”
He rolled the old man’s body over and searched the bag. Inside was the small wheel of cheese and the hard half loaf of bread. He searched the pockets and felt around the cloak and found nothing.
“Nothing! What a waste.”
“I told you he wouldn’t have anything good,” the youngest chimed in.
The old man nearly laughed but held back as he was supposed to be dead. They would soon lose interest or finally hear the soft sound of hooves on dirt behind them. The sound had grown steady, but Tom and Dil began bickering. Only when the younger boy hushed them did they notice.
“Back to the cabin, and not a word of this to anyone or I’ll whip you,” Tom said and they all jogged back into the woods.
The old man sat up, reached an arm back, and pulled the knife out. The blood stopped flowing from his thin body. He examined the knife briefly before tucking it away, then he picked up his travel sack and started walking. He was surprised. Normally the victim of a mugging isn’t better off for it, but they were young and inexperienced. The boy, Tom, hadn’t even searched him thoroughly or else he may have found something of value. He thought it unfortunate he never heard the youngest boy’s name, but his thoughts were interrupted when the wagon finally caught up to him.
“Where to, traveler?” The rider asked. He was a man of middle age. The wagon was full of fresh-cut hay and pulled by a lone mule.
The old man looked toward the road. “I’ve been going this way awhile now. I’ll probably keep at it a bit longer.”
The wagon rider smiled. “I can take you as far as Smaltin if you’d like to give your feet a rest.”
“How much?” the old man asked wearily.
“No cost for kindness.”
“A welcome gesture. Thank you.” The old man climbed up and took a seat.
The driver took up the reigns and the wagon began its slow roll forward. “What brings you all the way out here, traveler? We don’t get many visitors. Especially this time of year.”
“I’m just seeing the world one more time, that’s all. A lot can be learned from the road, and a lot can be remembered.”
“You’ve seen a lot then?”
“Aye, too much maybe.”
“Mind telling a story for the ride?”
“I thought there was no cost for kindness?”
“None at all. Just a good way to pass the time.”
“Very well. Have you heard the one of the knight who bathed in dragon’s blood?”