I'm not sure where to start this. I suppose it really starts when I met the old man. He's the key to the whole thing and has caused much of the upset in my life, not that I had much of a life before I met him.
I was a drifter, a young fool with no real hopes and too much ego. I was so sure of myself without knowing why. I worked my way across the countryside, nominally free, learning skills as I learned new jobs here and there. Some militia time here and there held me solid on basic formal fighting and weapon skills though most of my actual fighting has been 'friendly' brawls at festivals and taverns. I tend to draw the ire of local boys if they feel I'm getting too interested in the local ladies. I don't fight when I don't have to, but I welcome any training I come across.
Since the changeover happened I worked my way through the western province of the Holdings, guarding a caravan hauling goods from Holding to Holding. While I did focus on the security of the wagons, I also made a point to try to learn the other workings of the group: buying, selling, and maintenance of the the gear, stock, and crew. This is how I have made my way: doing what I must and learning what I can.
They call me Alderic, though that is not the name my mother gave me. I tell people I am from the Eastern Principalities when I am in the west and the Western Holdings when I am in the east. I dress as the locals dress, do my best to blend in, and learn the local accents. I don't have a home and my earliest memories are of traveling, so it comes naturally to me.
This is likely why I noticed the old man. He blended into the crowd as I do. He spoke as a local. He was a little bald man, dressed as a free man of the Holdings as I was, carrying his possessions in a shoulder bag and walking with a long stick. Given my habits, I was able to see that he was not what he seemed. He was unassuming and appeared like he could be from anywhere in the Hills. He could be anywhere from early middle-age to very old, it was hard to say.
I thought we met at random. To this day I am not sure. I was sitting on a wagon as we approached the market of the local Holding's main town and saw the old man sitting on a stump near a food stall. He wasn't precisely begging, but he had that look about him of needing that was an odd combination with his basic comfort in himself. He settled in where he was as if he'd grown out of the stump years ago. He looked up at me as we passed and winked. I had the idea for a moment he was waiting for me, but settled on the idea he simply saw me staring at him and was amused.
I didn't see him again for a day or so, only to have him turn up as I was looking for food midday two days later. The caravan doesn't need much guarding during the days, so I generally sleep late and stay up the nights. I had just bought a small pan-bread from a stall and was looking at roasted chickens when I noticed him standing next to me.
"I can't eat like that any more. When I was young, I could really put away food. Now a few morsels fills me up before I know it," he said with a comfortable familiarity. It took me a moment to realize he was addressing me. "Of course, you're still young and energetic. I prefer to sit and think these days. ...and watch people. I saw you arrive the other day. You're more observant than most."
I bought a roast chicken and looked around for a quiet place to eat. There was a beer stall near my caravan's wagons, so I bought myself a fill of my mug and went to sit in a wagon. On a whim, I asked the old fellow, "Would you like a pint?" and bought him one as well when he produced a mug from his bag. We sat together, him taking the beer as an invitation to join me. "So what brings you to this Holding?" I asked him.
"Same as you: the wind, a wagon, the road, chance. I have much to see in the world and more ahead of me, though not as much as I have behind me. I have some cheese to share in return for the beer. Interested?"
"Certainly. I'll even throw in some bread and chicken since you eat so little," I said with a smirk. "...from this Holding?"
"No, I got it a couple stops back: Rockwood Holding. They aren't known for cheese, but one of their dairymen makes this for his family and shared it with me." He broke off a piece and handed it to me in return for a leg and a piece of bread I broke off.
We settled into the meal in silence. He ate slowly and fastidiously, using his fingers and wiping them on the bread, finishing it last. He did not eat much, as he had said, but did not finish more quickly than I did. He seemed to enjoy the simple meal a great deal. He smiled throughout the meal and seemed content to just sit. His smile included his eyes in a subtle way.
The market was busy with the general murmur that goes with any large crowd. If I listened I could pull out individual voices but for now I was happy to hear the general hum. It gave me a feel for the mood and told me people were generally happy but focused on their tasks. This was a busy village with people content to be focused on their tasks. The few I saw eating ate quickly, without ceremony or hurry, but quickly.
There were no very wealthy people here. Nearly everyone seemed to be part of the local crowd: workers in the village, mostly farmers with a few crafters and the rest travelers like myself and my new acquaintance. From the looks of things, the market would conclude quickly with business complete and nothing left to trade. Perhaps the crafters would stay to complete works and some of the travelers would still sell from their wagons, but the locals started early and finished by midday.
We were mostly quiet through the meal, but did talk about simple things: the quality of the food, nearby places of interest, the layout of the village, some of the more interesting people to be seen in the market as it wound to a close. We even talked of the weather, the sky, and the objects in the night sky. Finally, our conversation wound down.
I felt he wanted me to say something, to ask something. At first nothing came to mind, then I asked, "So where are you headed?"
He paused before answering, as always, and appeared to think through an already determined answer. Not so much that he already knew what he was going to say, but as if he'd decided a long time ago to say something and deciding now if it's the right time. I got this impression from him a lot after this. It's just something he does. In the end, he smiled at me and suggested, "I could go anywhere. Did you have somewhere in mind?"
"Surely you have family to visit."
He seemed both saddened and amused by this. Several emotions were hinted at in his expression, but he settled into a sad expression before saying, "My wife and children are long gone. I have family in many places, but none I consider close. How about yourself? Family to visit near here?
For a moment his language was clipped and his accent unfamiliar, like his rhythms came from a language I didn't know, a dialect from far away. It took me a while to answer that one. "I know of no family of my own. I've been traveling since my mother died and don't know of any relatives she might have had."
"Well, I would say you're in as sad a state as me, but we both seem to get on well despite our lack of roots." He looked about at the remains of the meal, ate a few last scraps, and put away some larger pieces that could be saved for a future meal. I did the same.
I thought for a moment, then sealed my fate: "If you've nowhere special to go, will you travel with me? You have been good company for this meal."