Friday, February 16, 2018

Traveling Companions

"I was just asking if I could keep you company on the road," said the young man.

"And I just said no," answered my father.

I was seventeen, and we were traveling again. We never much stayed in one place, and I was old enough that I was starting to realize -- and my father had to know already -- that we couldn't keep this up forever. The young man was older, but not too much older. Somewhere in his early twenties, I thought. He wore nice clothes and scholar's sword, and rode a fine horse.

"Perhaps your--" he hesitated, but only slightly, probably because neither my father nor I look as old as we actually are. "--daughter would appreciate having someone new to talk to. And I do know how to use this blade; we'd be safer together."

My father tilted his head, studying the young man for a long moment, then very deliberately turned to look at me.

I looked past him, up at the fine young man on his horse. "It's fine," I told him. "Find a bunk in the waystation if you like, and make a fire for your dinner. But my father is right: we don't need company."

The young man sighed and dismounted. The movement was graceful, and he didn't look back at us as he led his horse away. It took him a while to get settled, to unsaddle his mount and lead her down to the stream to drink, to curry her and tie her to one of the posts in front of the waystation. But once he was finished with all that, he came and sat beside our fire.

My father was small and lean, wiry musculature hidden beneath loose clothes, and he never carried weapons. I was armed, but even together we probably didn't look very threatening. "So you're determined to intrude," he observed.

"Don't you have the least regard for hospitality?" asked the young man. "Travelers should always share their fires. And while I'm not in any great hurry, I've been riding all day. I'm delivering a missive from Lady Auginia of Santimos to the Loklarian garrison at Riftside."

I was half-inclined to indulge him, myself. He seemed nice enough, and he was pretty to look at. And he probably was tired, and maybe somewhat lonely. But he was intruding on our fire, and our company, and he seemed vaguely offended that we didn't want him there.

"Hospitality," my father said slowly, "is something that should be offered -- not taken." He made a small gesture, and murdered the fire. I'd seen it before, but it was still startling. The night was abruptly dark, and much, much colder. Even the coals would be cold, now.

The young man scrambled clumsily to his feet. "What was-- what just happened?"

My father didn't answer him. He just stood up, turned his back, and walked into the waystation.

I decided that was probably a good example to follow, and did the same. Both of us could see in the dark, but unless the young man was particularly gifted I doubted that he could. Behind me, I heard him call: "Hello? Are you still here?"

Neither of us answered. My father was already spreading his blankets on one of the bunks when I unclipped mine from my pack and tossed them onto the bunk above his. The waystation was basically a small, square building -- a shed with a door and a couple of windows at the front, more windows at the back, and two sets of two bunks built out from either wall. It was designed to offer travelers a place to sleep out of weather, but nothing more.

After a few minutes I heard movements and some faint scuffling sounds, followed by a quick murmur that resulted in the warm glow of a lamp outside the door. Then there were more movements, and some whuffing from the horse. The last thing I heard was hooves moving away into the darkness; as far as I know, he never even looked inside the waystation.

To this day, I don't really know if he was actually dangerous, or just young and over-sure of his welcome. Either way, I can't really blame my father for sending him on his way. What I do know for certain is that my father has no patience for people who can't take "No" for an answer.

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