This is another really early story; in fact, I’d completely forgotten about it until I found the file on my hard drive. I must have written it when I was 21 or 22. I was pleasantly surprised it holds up as well as it does.
It was never published, though I think I submitted it a few times.
By Edward Willett
Dream-images of warriors with bright swords and glittering armor shattered around him, and he was left with only his narrow cot, his patched wool blanket, and the aftertaste of the bitter disappointment he had taken to bed with him.
Today had been the day of the great fair and market in Kingsholm. The King himself had been there, and all his mighty knights. There had been a tournament; displays of magic and music; plays and acrobats; food and wine overflowing. His father had been there, selling their sheep, and his brothers had been there, enjoying themselves, and he—
He had been left behind to look after his year-old sister, Teriss. His father knew how much he loved the old tales of war and wizards, how much it would have meant to him to see the King who won those glorious victories and watch his men wage mock war in the tournament. Surely his father knew he dreamed of becoming a squire and maybe even a knight himself someday. And it wasn’t as if Barett and Guildor had never been to Kingsholm before; they’d both been to the last fair. He’d never been at all.
But his father hadn’t been moved by any of his arguments. “You’re not old enough,” he’d said. “Kingsholm at fair-time is no place for a boy. You’ve filled your head with silly dreams. You’d go off with the first landless knight who needed a slave to curry his horse.”
“You don’t trust me!”
“I trust you enough to leave the farm and your sister in your safekeeping,” his father replied. “What you need to learn, my boy, is what’s really important. Dreams are fine, but this farm is wide-awake reality. You’ll get a good dose of it, being on your own today. You’ll find it a lot easier to reach for dreams if you keep your feet on the ground.”
And that had been that.
Still angry at the complete unfairness of it, he sat up and looked around the room, dimly lit by moonglow through the narrow window. Teriss had not awakened him; the only sound from her crib in the corner was her faint breathing.
A flash brighter than the moonlight flickered in the shape of the window on the stones of the far wall. Seconds later a bass rumble followed.
Satisfied he had been disturbed only by the approaching storm, Danell lay back and rolled over on his side, anxious to plunge into his heroic dreams again. Then he heard a voice outside, answered by a second, and a third.
He sat back up in a hurry. The voices were not those of his two older brothers, Barett and Guildor, though he expected them to return some time during the night. Nor could his father be out there; he would be at market two or three days.
Danell slipped out of bed and went to the window. A light breeze drew cold fingers across his bare skin, and he shivered. He could see nothing but a narrow swath of the farmyard, but the voices, when they came again, were nearer—the deep, thick voices of men.
“Easy as cracking eggs. The old man and his grown sons are gone.”
“What about the youngest boy?”
“What about him? He’ll be asleep. Even if he’s not, what can he do against three of us? We’ll slit his throat and take our time finding the gold…”
Danell stepped away from the window, his heart pounding. Robbers!
His first thought was for the gold, the gold his father had saved, coin by coin, over years and years of taking the sheep to market, the gold he’d kept hidden against some day of disaster, drought or disease. But then Teriss murmured in her sleep, and the gold seemed less than nothing.
If they planned to slit his throat, would they hesitate to kill her, too?
Danell didn’t even know how long he had. He had to decide what to do at once.
He had his sling and he could use it well—he’d once killed a sheep-stalking mountain cat with it—but in the dark, against three, it wouldn’t be enough.
There was no place to hide in the house. That meant he had to get outside.
Quickly he pulled on trousers and tunic, but left his sandals and cloak. Bare feet would serve him better, and the cloak would only be in his way.
He opened the wardrobe his father had made for his mother only last fall, and pulled down clothes to make a nest in the bottom, thinking sadly as he did so that though his mother hadn’t lived long enough to make use of the gift, it could now serve the daughter she had died giving birth to. He lay Teriss down on the clothes; she moved sleepily but did not wake, and he softly closed the door.
Next he ran into the kitchen and reached inside the chimney, feeling for the loose rock that—there! In the space behind it was a heavy leather pouch that jingled as Danell pulled it free. Slinging the pouch over his right shoulder, he reached into it and grabbed a handful of coins. Then, clenching them in his fist, he lifted the latch on the kitchen door and stepped outside.
Lightning flared, silhouetting the three robbers only a few feet away. Danell gasped as they lunged at him, then twisted away, dropping the coins he had in his hand. One of the thieves grabbed the neck of his tunic, but the material tore away and Danell ran for the trees.
He heard curses behind him: then lightning flashed again and the robbers saw the coins he had let fall. “The brat has the gold on him!” one yelled. “After him!”
Danell slowed down inside the forest and turned uphill. He knew these woods and the meadows further up; all his life he had kept sheep on the mountain, and on more than one stormy night had scoured the slope for a lost lamb. His bare feet made no sound in the leaves and twigs of the forest floor, while behind him the thieves crashed through the underbrush. They fell further and further back.
Lightning came again, followed close on its heels by thunder, and the rising wind drowned out the last faint sounds of his pursuers. Danell slowed to a walk, drawing breath. No doubt the robbers were still after him, but he had gained some time.
Above the patch of forest surrounding the house was the meadow where the sheep grazed during the day, before being bedded down in the fold, well away to his right. To his left rose a ridge, a shoulder of the mountain, that on the other side fell steeply to a cataract in a deep gorge.
Danell headed up toward the edge of the meadow, planning to cut left and climb over the ridge. With it between him and the woods where the thieves would continue looking for him, he would head down the mountain for help. His brothers had to be on the road home, maybe close by. And since he had the gold, the thieves would continue looking for him and leave the house and Teriss alone.
He broke out of the trees. Before him rose the grassy, rock-strewn meadow where he had spent many happier days. Lightning and thunder mingled in glare and cacophony overhead and the howling wind, whipping over the grass, hit him full force as he left the trees behind. Blowing off the snows of the peak, it seemed to suck all warmth from his body.
Hastily he turned left and, leaning into the gale, started for the ridge, a quarter of a mile away, sticking close to the tree line for as much cover as possible, both from the storm and from hostile eyes behind him. By the time he reached the ridge the chill in his limbs had become pain, and the first drops of rain spattered down, each as solid and cold as ice.
The thin, twisted trees on the ridge scarcely broke the wind. Danell scrambled up among them as quickly as he could, head lowered. As he crested the slope he could hear the roar of the river even above the storm. Swollen by rain upslope, the swift, splashing stream had become a torrent.
The rain thickened, until in seconds it fell so hard that even in the full glare of the lightning Danell could see only a few yards. Soaked and shivering, he began to descend the mountain, clinging to branches along the top of the ridge, feet sliding dangerously on the wet grass.
His confidence waned as the storm waxed. Shouldn’t he have fled with Teriss herself, instead of the gold? He had escaped with it, he could just as easily have escaped with her.
A knife-like slash of wind-blown rain across his face made him stumble, and he shook his head violently. Teriss would not have survived such a night. He took another step and slid for a heart-stopping instant toward the gorge before catching a branch. He might not survive it either!
Sheep are safe when the wolves hunt elsewhere, he thought. The wolves are hunting me; the lamb is safe.
Then he looked up and screamed. Like something out of a nightmare, one of the robbers appeared in front of him in a flash of lightning, naked sword in hand. The blade reached out toward his throat. “Give me the gold, boy!” Danell didn’t move—couldn’t move. Sharp steel bit his cold-numbed flesh. “The gold!”
The wolves had hunted him down…and when they had him they would return to the fold to take whatever else was there—including the lamb, Teriss.
Slowly Danell let the strap of the pouch slide from his shoulder into his hand. Then, “Take it!” he screamed, and with his slinger’s skill whipped the pouch in a half-circle and released it.
The gold-weighted bag smashed into the robber’s chest. He staggered back, arms flailing, the sword flying from his hand. Lightning flashed and Danell glimpsed a white face and staring eyes—then darkness returned and the man was gone. For an instant, a scream echoed above the sound of wind and river.
Danell, his own eyes wide and his heart pounding, flung himself up and over the ridge and down the other side, back into the forest. He ran through the trees, branches clutching at him, tearing clothes and skin. Twice he fell and stumbled back up to run again. The third time he crashed down so hard he couldn’t breathe for a moment, and lay curled in misery on the wet leaves of the forest floor, struggling for air.
In a burst of lightning he saw he was at the edge of the trail down the mountain. With his first shallow, painful breaths he staggered to his feet and stumbled onto the path—and saw the remaining two thieves not twenty feet upslope.
Danell didn’t have enough air in his lungs to run. He fell to his knees as the robbers ran toward him, swords drawn. One of them grabbed his hair and yanked his head back “Where is it? Where’s the gold?”
“The river,” Danell choked out. “With your friend.”
The robber flung him to the ground. “You’re lying!”
“I think he’s telling the truth,” the other man said. “I thought I heard a scream—”
The first robber stared at him, then down at Danell. “All that gold—in the river—” He raised his sword. “I’ll kill you for that!”
His blade whistled down, but Danell rolled out of the way, scrambled to his feet and pelted down the path. The robbers followed, screaming oaths.
Danell’s feet felt leaden and his chest still ached. Soon, very soon, he would fall, and they would kill him, and then they would go back to the house and Teriss would die, too . . .
He rounded a corner. Blinded by the rain and his terror and exhaustion, he didn’t see the two men on the trail until he careened into them. Strong arms grabbed him, then supported him. “Danell! What’s wrong?”
With overwhelming relief, Danell recognized the voice of Barett, his oldest brother. “Robbers!” he gasped. Barett thrust him out of the way, and he heard the ring of swords being drawn.
The ensuing battle was brief.
Wrapped in a blanket, Danell steamed by the roaring fire in the kitchen hearth. “I thought I’d never be warm again,” he said, and edged closer to the blaze.
Barett sat at the table with Teriss in his arms. The baby tried to grab his finger, laughing. Guildor turned from the fire and smiled at his little sister as he handed Danell a steaming mug of mulled wine.
Danell cupped it in his hands. “What will father say about the gold? He’s been saving that for so many years…”
Barett glanced up at him. “He’s always said he was saving it for a disaster,” he pointed out. “If you hadn’t used it as you did, tonight would have been the worst disaster of all. You know he isn’t concerned about gold as much as he is about you—and Teriss.”
“I didn’t think so this morning,” Danell admitted. “I didn’t think it was fair. He knows how I feel…” His voice trailed off. He felt only embarrassment now at the way he had acted that morning, and gulped wine to hide his flush.
Guildor and Barett exchanged glances, then Guildor said, “That was a very brave thing you did. Worthy of a great hero, if you ask me.”
Danell remembered cold, terror, violence and pain. He sipped from the cup again and shook his head. “If that’s what it means to be a hero—then to be a shepherd is the finest thing I know.” No dreams of knights or bold battles filled his head now; he had fought his battle, and to sit in peace and safety with his brothers and sister was all he could ask. He looked at Teriss, laughing as she played with Barett’s hand, and added, “Besides, all I was really doing was looking after a very special lamb.” He grinned and snuggled down in his blanket. “The ones with fleece are less trouble.”