Daniel turned back toward the townsfolk behind him. He wasn't certain what to expect, but it surely wasn't the mixture of horror and loathing that he read in the stares of people who had known him since birth. His eyes sought his parents and found them just outside the smoldering mill; his mother looked away, and his father gaped slack-jawed and wide-eyed, as though he did not recognize the young man now before his eyes. The rest of the crowd squirmed and seethed, and Daniel did not think it was only in his imagination that some at the back of the mob stooped as if reaching for stones.
The glowering silence was broken once more by the return of thundering hooves; the rider that had pursued Daniel down the hill now dashed toward him from the direction of the bridge. This time Daniel was too stunned or exhausted or ashamed to react. The rider leaned low in the saddle and scooped him up with one burly arm, throwing him over his saddle horn and riding off to the northwest, the sword point trailing in the air as the hilt remained firmly in Daniel's grip. The rib-pounding ride did not halt for a quarter of an hour, when finally the mysterious rider reigned in his mount in a small copse near the stream. The spirited animal snorted and stamped as Daniel was lowered gently to the earth. The rider swung down after him and removed his helm, shaking out sweaty, blonde locks that ran to his shoulders. His features were fine save for a crooked tooth and a scar over one eyebrow. Daniel judged the man to be a knight by his gear and the device on his shield, but he was too confused and weary to honor the formalities of rank.
"Why did you do that!?" he demanded.
"Had you a longing to be accused of witchcraft twice in one day?"
Daniel cast his eyes to the ground. "How did you know about that?"
"I watched the proceeding in totality from concealment in the brush. You handled yourself quite remarkably, good…ah, your name, young yeoman?"
"I'm called Daniel, son of Joseph the Miller. You weren't with the party that attacked me?"
"I was, nor am, with either of the parties that have attacked you on this fine but quite young morning. One wonders how a boy of such smallness might have attained to his present age with such a propensity for making enemies."
"This isn't a usual day for me."
"Truth, 'tis a rare day for the lot of all the kingdom, rare and fell, this errant knight may say. I am Sir Reuben of the Roads and Dales, and I was on my own way to urgent business with your Lord Hector, but I seized upon opportunity when I did see yon mysterious blade, and yourself so enamored of it. I sought to keep you from the perils in your village, but young page, if page you will consent yourself to be, does dodge with most alacrity."
"I've never met a knight who talks so much."
"Pray, how many knights have you met?"
"…Not many. What was your urgent business with Lord Hector, then, and what do you know of the 'perils' in my village?"
"It is that I come with grave news. 'Twas less than a fortnight ago that the king took to what would become his deathbed, and him without any heir to follow his reign. The nobles began arraying themselves into sundry factions posthaste, and your Lord Hector did cast in his humble lot with Count Rickard of Rassenvale, His Majesty's half-brother. Alas, the greater lands and power belong to your neighbor Baron Willhelm of Altshire, who did swoop in at the very hour of His Majesty's demise and claim stewardship of the throne and control of the royal guard. Somehow your lord's allegiance was made known to him, and even now he assails his rival's supporters."
"What does any of this have to do with me?"
"When crossed did our paths, I myself was on an errand most urgent to rally the petty nobles, all as have not chosen to pledge to either the Baron or the Count, to swear loyalty to Count Rickard's claim. This errand I seek now to continue, with the wonders and might of that mysterious sword of yours to bolster my otherwise somewhat tenuous position. Trust, young page, that those of a noble's and warrior's mien will not so easily panic at a demonstration of its power."
"So you want me to help you put Count Rickard on the throne?"
"It is as you say."
"But should I? Does the Count deserve the throne? Is he fit to rule?"
"He is fit enough, be assured, or else Sir Reuben, myself, nobler perhaps of spirit than of ancient blood, would cast my lot elsewhere, but the unlovely truth, young Daniel, if I may take the liberty of your given name, is that it matters little. Should the Count's supporters go down to defeat, he will surely flee to other lands and appeal to foreign kings on the basis of his royal blood; they will doubtless and with avaricious speed comply on the basis of their own and responding to the lure of plunder. In short, lad, Count Rickard of Rassenvale must win this war quickly, or else it may never end."