“You don’t look like you’re from around here,” a young voice said.
The man looked up to see a little girl standing a little ways away from him as he sat on the porch in front of the inn. He gazed at her a moment before replying. “I suppose I don’t, but what gave it away?”
She shrugged. “Don’t get a whole lot of new faces this far from the cities. What’s your name?”
“Haven’t you got anything better to do than keep a stranger company?”
“Ma says everyone’s got a story to tell. I ask everyone that passes through.”
A smile crept onto the traveler’s face. “That’s very wise, especially for a girl your age.” He gestured to a wooden chair opposite him on the porch. “Come, I suppose I do have a story you might enjoy, though it is a little dark. Have you ever heard of the Legend of the Lonely Sage?”
The girl frowned as she hopped up onto the seat he referred to. “The one with too many books, or the one who traveled the world looking for the perfect bride?”
“The one who rides a horse of smoke.”
She grinned and shook her head.
“Well, unlike many tales, this one is true.”
“Everyone says that,” the girl replied.
“Fair enough,” the man said. “Now, most people who tell this story speak of the Sage as some symbol of death. He is frail and thin, just like his steed, and those who meet him are sure to die. That version of the tale is a cautionary one. It teaches people to beware of strangers and people that are different. But I think that story is ill-fitting, given our circumstances.”
The child started giggling. “You still haven’t started the story.”
“Of course, of course, my apologies. I was about to say that I prefer a different version of the story, in any case. I never liked tales that present such a negative view of the world. There are dangers, of course, but I don’t think presenting them as larger than they are does anyone any good, least of all somebody like you.
“You see, the negative story claims he received the horse as a gift from the god of death, so that he may travel further for longer, and therefore bring more people into his domain. He is a harbinger of the end times, if it is to be believed. A lieutenant that serves no one but his cruel master.
“But really, the man was cursed. Death doesn’t travel in his wake, he simply has a clairvoyance that allows him to predict how soon people would die. He used this gift to help grant wishes and offer assistance where he could, but over time people began to suspect he had had a hand in the death around him. Town after town would reject his aid, until one day he found a horse that was plagued with a strange sickness. Something told the man that while the horse was very sick, it would not die for a long time. He took it under his care to give it a better life, and though it is still sick, the man took pride that it was happier because of him.
“The man still wanders the world, along with his trusty steed. He gives food to those that need it, and advice to those that wish it. He never tarries very long, though, for he wishes to help all he can, and lingering would both endanger himself and those he sought to aid.”
“So all he does is try to help people, and he gets run out of town for it?” the girl said, visibly upset.
“Sometimes, but occasionally, he’ll meet sweet little girls that show him kindness even when he has nothing to offer them. It isn’t the easiest life, of course, but he does it because it is still rewarding.”
Out of the corner of his eye, a stableboy rounded the side of the inn and called up to him. “Excuse me, sir! Your horse is… It doesn’t look well. It’s snorting and restless, and it’s… bandages… are beginning to fall off.”
The man sighed as he rose from his chair. “I will see to it.” He looked back to the girl and smiled as he bowed. “Thank you for the company, miss. May you lead a pleasant and long life,” he winked.