I'd heard of her, of course. Most people throughout the breadth of Hiraeth knew her by reputation, though few by sight. The Lady Gray, huntress of shades. Some called her a savior, some called her a witch. They claimed she was older than the sea, or younger than the springtime, or newly reborn with every passing moon. She was on a holy mission ordained by the gods themselves, or she had set herself against the will of the gods and was locked in an endless war with them.
None of these were altogether right. There was a grain of accuracy in every rumor, but those grains were hopelessly smothered in speculation and falsehood.
I, however, can tell you the truth.
It was late autumn, when the winds start to become truly chill and the last light of each day burns itself into the changing color of the leaves. The darkness stopped at the door, however, and inside the tavern it was still bright and warm and cheery.
I had only stopped for a meal, on my way between where I'd been and wherever it was I was going; in those days, I didn't really know. I'd been apprenticed to a smith, but he had died before I'd learned much, and I was cut loose. I was still young then, maybe too young for what was about to happen. But we don't usually get a say in such things.
It was a charmingly rustic inn, the sort often seen in such tales. A fire roared in the double hearth, casting shadows into the rafters and burnishing the wooden tables. Tankards of mead slid across the bar into the hands of waiting miners and millers and farmers, eager to refresh themselves after a day of hard labor. The innkeeper's dogs lay on the floor, now and then accepting a stray chicken bone or bit of fatty meat from a regular's hand.
I did notice them in the corner, and wondered about them. They kept to themselves, not really bothering anyone, and most everyone ignored them. The taller one was broad of shoulder; his face was hard, like it had been chiseled from stone, and his eyes kept darting around as though he expected trouble.
The smaller one kept her hood up; it was a while before I even realized she was female. Unlike her companion, she refrained from looking anywhere except at her plate, studying the depths of her stew. A few locks of very black hair escaped the concealment of her cloak, and at one point she raised her head enough that I could view the curve of her jaw, smooth and pale.
I paid them no further mind until the innkeeper's wife addressed herself to them upon clearing away their empty dishes. "Your room is ready," she said briskly. "Top of the stairs, turn left, second door from the window on the left side."
"Thank you," said the cloaked woman. Something about her voice rang in my ears; there was an undercurrent of iron.
She turned in her seat to address the innkeeper's wife more directly, but the other woman backed away very suddenly. I could see that her face had gone ashen; one hand twisted itself in the fabric of her apron while the other pointed in horror. "You're..."
"Oh. This again."
The innkeeper's wife moved, then, and I could see what she had blocked from my view. The cloaked woman wore some kind of jewel around her throat, a dark-colored stone that caught the light. The whole room had gone silent at the exchange, and now some of the men were rising from their chairs. One of them advanced on the table, a hand on the pommel of his weapon.
"You." It was little more than a growl. "You're her, aren't you? Lady Gray - the hellspawn."
"Half accurate. I am Lady Gray," she replied. Her air was resigned, weary; this was not a new conversation to her.
"You're not welcome here."
"I want no trouble. I only seek a bed for the night."
"You don't seem to understand." He drew his sword. "You're not welcome here."
There was a flash of firelight on metal as the blade arced upward and then down. He was, I daresay, deliberately avoiding striking her - the motion was to intimidate, not to harm. But I know not if I've accurately deduced his intentions, because the room rang with the impact of steel on steel. The cloaked lady's companion had, with impossible quickness, drawn his own blade to deflect the blow.
"Do not ever threaten the lady," he said, his voice low and deadly.
The inn fairly exploded with activity at that point - the man's friends rushed to his assistance, launching themselves at the cloaked lady's companion. Other patrons scattered, trying to avoid the sudden flurry of blades and fists. The cloaked lady left her table, evidently judging her companion more than capable of defending himself, and moved in my direction as I sheltered near the great fireplace.
As the cloaked man threw off two of his attackers, the first one to draw his sword came after the lady. His eyes were blazing with a fury like I'd never seen. "Vengeance!" he declared, raising his weapon again. It was the only word he said that I could understand.
She made no move to defend herself, apparently very ready to accept his blade in her heart. Without knowing quite what I did, I left my place of concealment and pushed her - none too gently - out of harm's way. The sword caught me in my left shoulder, tearing my shirt, drawing blood. For the first time, the cloaked lady seemed to register some genuine alarm.
"Enough," she told her assailant, pushing back the hood of her cloak. I clutched my injured shoulder, staring up at her. Her eyes were bright, and very green. "We will leave, and leave in peace. Or must I bring this matter to the attention of my confessor?"
They glowered at each other for a minute. Then, to my surprise, he turned and gave a whistle over his shoulder. "Clear off," he told his friends. "They're going."
"Thank you." Her voice was low again. "Sabastian," she added, addressing her companion, "meet me at the stable." She looked at me. "Bring him."