“In the skies over England there appeared a star of wonderful brightness and magnitude. It seemed to take the form of a white dragon, out of whose mouth came two jets of red fire. Seeing this, Uther summoned the wizard Merlin and commanded him to explain the omen. Merlin burst forth with laughter and exclaimed, ‘Most noble Uther, you shall become king of all England, for this dragon star symbolizes yourself supreme above all. And one of the flames coming from its mouth shows that you shall have a powerful son who shall be king upon your death. His name shall be Arthur. The other signifies a daughter, whose heirs shall one day inherit the kingdom of Britain.’ From this time, therefore, Uther was called Pendragon, which in the British language signifieth the head of the dragon.”
– Geoffrey of Monmouth, 1170 A.D.
I was raised wearing armor.
You may think that means I was raised to be a knight, to wear mail and plates of steel like the heroes from my father’s time, the knights who sat at the Round Table. That’s not what I’m talking about.
The strongest sort of armor is made of illusions, deceptions, and dishonesty. If people don’t know who you truly are, if you’re always hidden behind a shield of falsehood, then they can’t hurt you. You’re always safe if you’re surrounded in lies.
Hidden and safe. I was happy living that way — until the day I met someone I wanted to get close to. Then I found I didn’t know how to do anything but lie to him. I had been telling lies for so long that I discovered I didn’t know how to tell the truth, even when I really wanted to.
Because I was raised wearing armor made of lies.
It started on a sunny July morning as I was walking the southern border of Bodmin Moor. Though it was early, the air was already warm and I was beginning to sweat inside my thick wool hunting coat and leather jerkin. But I was looking for the tracks of a wolf or a boar, or sign of any other game worth hunting. Bodmin Moor was more than a hundred square miles of hunting land that belonged to Count Cador, lord of all Cornwall. Anyone found wandering the moors without permission would suffer harsh penalties, but I wasn’t worried about that. If there was one boy in all of England who could cross the moors without incurring the count’s wrath, it was me.
And it was on that July morning that I saw something most people only hear about in stories by the fireside.
At first it was just a glimpse of white in a grove of trees in the distance. The way it moved, like smoke on the wind, made me think it was a trick of the light. Then it bounded out of the trees and I saw it clearly: the White Hart, something that hunters all across the kingdom dreamed of seeing.
It was more magnificent than any bard’s poetry. A huge stag with a coat the color of cream, and antlers as long as a man is tall. It snorted the breeze, then set off with a bound that surely stretched ten of my paces.
I dashed ahead and found its hoofprints at the spot where it had broken out of the woods. The beast had vanished into another thick stand of trees not far away, so I set out to follow. Of course, I wasn’t planning to hurt it – all I had was my walking staff, and that was no weapon for hunting. But there was something about the sight of it, standing there like the prince of the moors, with it’s golden eyes looking straight at me, that made me yearn to see it again, to be that close.
I could understand why the few hunters who claimed to have spotted the White Hart talked about it for the rest of their lives.
There were all sorts of legends about this beast and why it chose to live in the deep wilderness of Bodmin Moor. It was an ancient animal, and most people believed it was enchanted – a creature of the old magic from the time before humans came to Cornwall.
I followed its tracks through the woods as quickly and quietly as I could. I’d been stalking game out on the moors for as long as I could walk, so following a huge, galloping stag was easy. But my eyes were on the ground, looking for the disturbed earth where its hooves had fallen, so I was surprised when I pushed through a tangle of branches and suddenly found myself in an open clearing.
Sunlight streamed down from the open sky and I blinked in the bright light. Then I noticed I wasn’t alone. On the far side of the clearing, just a dozen paces from where I stood, there was an old man in a gray robe with a long, white beard. He was huge – probably ten feet tall – and the strangest thing about him were the two long, forking antlers growing out of his forehead.
As I gasped in surprise when he spoke in whisper like the first gust of an incoming storm: “Who are you?”
I gripped my staff just a little tighter and blinked again as my eyes adjusted to the sunlight — then I saw I wasn’t looking at a gigantic old man with antlers. It was just the sun-bleached trunk of a broken old oak tree, hollowed with age and overgrown with pale moss. It was topped with two bare, ragged branches that reached up toward the sky. A covey of quail flushed from the bushes at its base and flew away with a sharp rattling of wings.
But a moment later I realized I hadn’t imagined everything. Over the echoes of the birds’ wings I could hear a feeble voice, but now I distinctly made out the words, “Is someone there? Who are you? Can you help me?”
Moving quietly toward the hollow oak, I crouched low and peered through the brush. Just beyond, so close I could practically reach through the leaves and touch him, was a boy just about my own age. He was lying on the ground with one arm stretched out in front of him.
And his shirt was spattered in bright red blood.
He wasn’t moving at all. I didn’t know if he had seen me through the bushes, or if he was just calling out blindly. But I could tell one thing for sure: If I didn’t help him, he was going to die. It wasn’t as if anyone else was going to find him out here in the woods.
But I also knew that if I spoke to him, I was likely to get into the worst trouble of my whole life. Talking to strangers out on the moors was one of the things strictly forbidden by my father.
I stared through the leaves, wondering what to do. The boy hardly seemed dangerous. In fact, from what I could see, he looked perfectly pleasant. His long black hair was tied back behind his neck and wrapped with a leather cord. He wore a plain linen shirt and trousers, and had a small cloth satchel slung over one shoulder. I could see that his face, dappled by the shadows of the trees, had fine cheeks and a strong nose.
Handsome. Handsome is how I’d have described him, though I know that’s not how one boy is supposed to think of another.
And I could see that his chest was barely moving. I couldn’t leave him out here, hurt and dazed. I had to help him.
Cautiously I slipped through the brush and knelt at his side. “What happened to you?” I asked. But he didn’t answer. He’d slipped into unconsciousness.
Kneeling by his side I could see his wound. He’d been hit with a powerful blow that left a gash on his swollen scalp. It was bleeding badly, and I knew he needed to get bandaged right away. I started to rip a strip off of his shirt — then I heard something else moving through the woods. I looked toward the sound and saw a dark figure, a man stalking through the trees. I couldn’t make out his face, but I could see one thing very distinctly: He was carrying a heavy club.
In just a moment that man was going to step out of the shadows and see me and the wounded boy on the ground. I had no idea what had happened here, how this dark-haired boy had gotten hurt, but I knew I didn’t want to wind up the same way.
I slipped my hands under the boy’s arms, lifted as gently as I could, and dragged him toward that hollow oak tree.
A few moments later the man with the club walked into the clearing. His eyes darted from side to side, searching warily and taking note of every swaying twig and falling leaf. He stepped forward, then paused just a couple of paces away from the mossy oak.
Inside the hollow trunk, the wounded boy and I huddled together. There was hardly enough room for both of us, but I’d managed to get us hidden and our tracks covered without making a sound. I knew how to keep from being seen on the moors when I needed to. But now, as I saw the man’s silhouette through the covering of moss, I was afraid he somehow knew where we were.
The man stood still for the span of a dozen heartbeats, so close I could hear his sharp breathing. It almost sounded like he was sniffing the air.
Just then there was a rustle of movement in one of the high branches, and a hawk swooped down from a nearby tree and perched on one of the ragged branches atop the old oak. The bird glared down at the man, shrieked angrily, then flapped away toward another treetop.
The man shook his head, then quickly moved away and disappeared into the woods.
Finally I breathed again in a quick gasp. I’d had my hand over the injured boy’s mouth to keep him from making any sound. When I took it away he gave a low moan.
Inside the hollow tree, my face was just inches away from his. He squinted at me in confusion as he passed lightly back into consciousness. “Who are you?” he wheezed.
Glancing through the moss-covered opening, I could still see the very spot where that man had gone off into the forest. He might still be close enough to hear us.
Struggling to move, I put one finger in front of my lips. “Silence,” was the only answer I dared to give.
The tale continues in The Champion In Silence, the first book of The Chronicles Of Silence, available soon.
ALL MATERIAL ON THIS PAGE COPYRIGHT 2011, SCOTT FARRELL — No part of this chapter may be used or reprinted without written permission of the author.