Daniel eyed the strange man before him, unsure of what to believe, much less of what to do. "What if I refuse?" he finally asked.
"If in that way wends the calling of your heart," Sir Reuben answered, "then it falls not to me to offer rebuke; you stand as no vassal of mine. I would dishonor myself as a virtuous knight, though, did I not make plain to you the weight of your predicament. It is that you have slain a member of the royal guard, and this you've brought about by means not entirely natural. You must not be ignorant that your return home would be ill-met, and where else may you go?"
Daniel was silent for a moment before realizing that the knight's question was not rhetorical, then for longer as he pondered the answer. "Nowhere," he said at last.
"It is as I thought," Reuben said, his voice gentle. "And so, young yeoman, my offer stands. I reckon well that the squabbles of the nobility must seem to matter only very little to those who toil, but I will provide protection and provender, and perhaps even a chance to see some things of this wide world not often fated to the eyes of millers' sons. Now, we tarry too long, and overmuch thinking pains the head. Your answer, then? Say on, Daniel, Joseph's son."
"Good!" Sir Reuben shouted. He tossed Daniel an empty scabbard and sword belt. "Stow thine wondrous weapon, then, young page. I trust you grow tired of its weight, knowing that you've not set it down since you first picked it up in distant clearing." Daniel was surprised to find, as he considered it, that this wasn't so. It still felt light and natural, and what weight it did have was somehow comforting, but he realized that traveling with a naked blade and only one free hand was likely to cause every kind of trouble, so he complied. "I chance to say that sheath will fit your most esteemed blade well enough, though, alas, we have no fair maidens about to gird it on ye. More's the pity. We'll set out directly, and our feet will be our conveyance, for noble Karl of the Fleet Four Feet has earned well his rest after our hasty flight…"
Reuben continued talking as Daniel fumbled with the heavy leather of the sword belt. It had a pair of rings for a buckle, but even after working out how to loop it through and cinch it fast, the free end was long enough to trip over, but not quite long enough to go over his shoulder and tuck back in. By the time he worked out a creative way to loop it back through to take up some extra slack, they were on the move again, Reuben leading his horse, Karl, as he and Daniel breakfasted on some hard biscuits from the saddle bags.
"Where are we going?" Daniel asked after he'd eaten his fill.
"Down this stream lies the fief of Lord Aidan of Corngold, who remains as yet undecided in the conflict of succession. We sally forth to win his support for Count Rickard, and perhaps gain some increased measure of protection for his neighbor, Hector, and for your little village in the doing."
"And where do I come in?"
Reuben slowed and looked at Daniel. "How did you know what to do back in the village?"
"…I didn't. The sword, it…it seems to call to my thought somehow, and I just followed the call, and my instincts, and the next thing I know, I'm here, walking along this stream."
"I thought as much while I watched the conflict from the hill. You seemed driven by a will and skill that I mean no offense in saying could not have been your own."
"I'm not offended. How would…" Daniel stopped speaking as he realized that Sir Reuben had stopped walking. The knight was scanning the horizon, his gaze lingering on the grassy hills to their right, and his nostrils flared like his horse's as he sniffed the air. Daniel little doubted that Reuben's ears were straining as well, though he could hear nothing, himself. Finally Reuben hefted his helm from its resting place on his saddle and settled it on his head, then stepped to the shallows of the stream and picked up a smooth stone just small enough to hold. He returned to Karl's side and had one foot in the stirrup as he spoke in a low voice. "Daniel, hold your course hard onto my left side, keep a hand on the stirrup if you must, and try to keep that sword out of sight."
"What's wrong?" Daniel asked as he moved to obey.
"I am not sure yet. Nothing, I hope. Best to be ready."
As they crept forward, Daniel was startled by the change in Sir Reuben's demeanor. Gone were the flowery speech and expansive gestures; he was quiet, intent, and ready. They'd crept less than a furlong when a trickling brook came down from their right to join the larger stream, emerging from a small, brush-filled defile between two hills. The sword's call had become muffled almost to silence after Daniel had sheathed it, but now he could feel the pounding of the war drums again, shaking his left hip where the sword's weight rested. He grasped the hilt to steady it, but when he touched the weapon the rhythm thrummed up his arm and into his heart.
A man's voice rattled out from the defile. "Get off your horse!"
"I will not!" Sir Reuben called back. Daniel gritted his teeth, fighting the hunger to draw his blade. Reuben angled his path toward the defile, though not so much that Daniel was unguarded.
"That's close enough!" the voice cried. "I'll skewer you with a crossbow bolt if you take another step!"
Reuben stopped. "Come now," he shouted back, "how do I know you even have a crossbow? I can't see you."
The speaker began to move from his hiding place, now perhaps a dozen yards away, but the moment his head was in view, Sir Reuben whipped out his right arm and loosed his stone. Daniel heard a loud crack and a scream; he hazarded a peek under Karl's neck to see a young man, barely a few years older than himself, reach for his nose as a small crossbow fell from his grasp to snag in the brush.
Sir Reuben spurred his horse with a shout, leaving Daniel behind. Hoof beats blended with the drums in his head once more as he watched Reuben drive his mount's flank against his attacker, knocking him flat without doing any lasting harm. "How many are you!?" he bellowed. Daniel jogged up from behind.
"Only three," the man answered from the ground.
Daniel could resist no longer. The sword leapt from the scabbard as he growled, "He's lying, trying to talk our guard down, set us up for a trap."
Reuben extended his arm down to Daniel. "Swing up, lad," he urged, "let's away from here."
Daniel was reaching for Reuben's hand when the first rope flew from the brush and encircled Karl's neck. The horse bucked; Reuben fought to stay in the saddle. Daniel swung his blade at the rope, and it sliced cleanly through, leaving the cut ends singed and curling. The brigand reached for Daniel's foot. Daniel lashed out instinctively, there was a flash of light and blood, and the young man gurgled and died.
By then Sir Reuben had calmed his horse, and he leaned low to grab Daniel's sword belt and haul him bodily into the saddle as he had done that morning. Daniel fought to sheathe his sword as Reuben spurred Karl to a gallop. The horse surged forward, but other ropes snaked out from the brush, finding his neck and legs, and he came down with a crash.
Daniel curled himself around the sword as he fell, then felt a sharp pain through his head that bashed his world into darkness.