The next morning, David and the knight rode side by side under an overcast sky. The land seemed bleak and lonely. No birds or squirrels were heard or seen dancing beside the road. Even after the sun began to peek from behind the clouds, David could not shake a feeling of emptiness until they stopped by a pond for a noonday meal. They had seen no one on the road or in the farmhouses they passed, so all they had to eat was some dried venison the farmer had given them.
David studied the area around the pond. It had been cultivated into fields of oats and barley. The steady breeze made them billow like soft waves upon a shadowy sea. Shrubs lined a swift dancing brook that fed into the pond and then spilled over a small dam to continue on its way, but not a tree was to be seen anywhere.
“How sad and greedy,” thought David. “The wind blows too strongly through the grain and will damage it. Had they left some trees, it would not be so harsh.” Then he turned to the knight and said, “If you build a fire, I’ll catch us some fish.”
“Can you do that without a net?” asked the knight.
The knight set to building a fire as David took the horses with him. He tied the stallion and pony to a sturdy bush so they could drink then wandered down the brook to the pond. He finally found a spot dotted by reeds where it was shallow enough for him to wade into. He removed his shoes and rolled up his leggings, then quietly slipped into the water. It was cold...but it felt right.
He saw a number of trout wandering between the reeds. He carefully dipped his hands into the water and fluttered his fingers as if they were part of the vegetation. A curious trout poked over to see what he was doing and slipped close to David’s hands...and the boy whipped it out of the pond and onto the bank. As it flopped around, he returned his hands to the water and repeated his actions. But now the trout were more wary.
As he waited for another one, David’s mind drifted back to the first time he had done this. It was a year after his mother’s passing, and an old man traveling with a group of gypsies had shown him the trick. He remembered how Nana’s eyes had lit up when he carried in a fish that seemed as large as he was, and for the first time he had felt as if he was helping her instead of adding to her burden. She had roasted it with onions and herbs and they had baked apples for dessert, and he had known even Sir Richard could never have eaten so well.
But now looking back, he realized that the fish was not so very large and that he had eaten most of it. And yet, Nana’s eyes had shone with pride, and even though he had brought home many more fish in the years following, she still spoke of how wonderful the first one had been.
Another trout tickled itself over his fingers. Without a thought, David whipped it onto the bank...and looked up to find a huge brown bear with black markings watching him from the other side of the pond.
David froze. He had seen a bear only once before, with that same group of gypsies. It had been kept on a rope and danced around and around at its owner’s command. David had thought it was really a man in a bear skin, it seemed so human. But this one was definitely an animal.
The bear fixed its honey black eyes on David and did not move as the boy slipped his fingers back into the water. But this time when a trout finally brushed over his fingers, he flipped the fish onto the opposite shore next to the bear. It grunted and devoured the fish as if it was starving. It was then that David noticed the broken rope around its neck.
He tossed the bear another fish then carefully began to back out of the water. He was almost to the bank when he heard a whispery, “Stand fast, David.” He turned to find the knight slowly approaching, his bow and arrow at the ready.
“Don’t, Sir Knight,” whispered David. “He’s not dangerous. See the rope? He’s a pet that’s wandered away. He just doesn’t know how to find food.”
“He is a creature of the wild,” the knight replied. “If he feels threatened, he will attack you.”
“Not unless I try to take his fish. But I won’t need to, for we have our own.” He held up the two trout. The bear grunted at him, then began to eat its second fish.
The knight lowered his bow, warily. David joined him and asked, “Is the fire ready?”
“It is,” replied the knight, eyeing the boy with curiosity.
Then they heard someone approaching and looked down the brook to see an elderly man striding up the other side.
“Lay down your arrow!” he cried. “That’s my Grissom! That’s my Grissom!” He strode right up to the bear and grabbed the rope. “Stupid beast! You could have been killed, and all for a little fish!”
“You there,” called the knight. “This animal is your property?”
“It is, Sir Knight,” replied the elderly man. “Much to my sorrow, sometimes.”
“Then keep it tethered more securely! We cannot have such creatures roaming the land. Someone might be harmed.”
“Oh, Grissom would never harm a soul, Sir Knight. He was raised by me from a cub. But he does like to go wandering.”
The knight scowled. “The next time he goes ‘wandering,’ his pelt may wind up on a castle floor!”
The elderly man scowled right back. “You don’t have the right to threaten that! Not with a family pet! Ask anyone in these parts; they’ll tell you Grissom’s as gentle as a lamb!”
David could not believe his ears. “How dare you speak to us in such a manner?!” he cried. “This is one of Sir Richard’s knights! And how are we to know your bear’s not dangerous? We’re not from here! He would have every right to shoot it -- !”
“David,” snapped the knight, “leave this to me.” He turned back to the elderly man. “The boy raises a valid point. Had he not noticed the rope around your bear’s neck, he might not have kept me from releasing my arrow. And as he said, we are only passing through. As do more and more people, these days.”
The elderly man withered under the knight’s glare. “I understand, Sir Knight,” he said. “A thousand pardons. I’ll keep Grissom tied up better, in the future.”
“See to it,” said the knight. Then he lead David back to the fire as the elderly man took the bear away.
David was so angry, he could barely eat. To have a stupid old peasant argue with one of Sir Richard’s knights was bad enough. But then to be ordered silent when he was standing up for the man was almost too much to bear. He refused to even look at him through the entire meal.
The rest of the day passed in complete silence. David did not cast even so much as a glance at the knight, but the man did look at him, now and again, seeming even warier.
Then as evening began to descend, they noticed the smoke from a farmhouse trailing into the sky. The man said, “We shall bed there for the night.”
David hesitated, remembering the old man and the farmer and the married couple. “I...I’d rather sleep outside,” he said. “If you don’t mind, Sir Knight.”
In answer, the man turned his stallion from the road and led David to a small clearing. They built a fire to heat the venison, and they ate in silence.
The sky grew darker and darker, adding to David’s sadness...a sadness he could neither explain nor understand. In fact, he could not think of anything. Not his grandmother. Not his mother and father. Not his town. Not even his best friend, Corey. And most especially, he could not think about Sir Richard. Something in him was whispering that this journey was a mistake, that he should turn back before he learned just how many lies and childish assumptions his world had been built upon. He knew the awareness would not be joyous.
To help himself ignore it, he watched a thousand-thousand stars slowly fill the heavens and glisten against the blackness, and finally he offered a gentle smile as embers leapt from the fire in a vain attempt to join the glorious display.
Then a star shot from the sky, flared into brilliance and disappeared. Two more quickly followed.
“Did you see that?” he asked the knight, in wonder.
The man looked at the sky as several more stars flashed past. “I’ve seen them many times,” he said.
“I haven’t,” said David. “Not like this.” Another star shot past...and David heard himself ask, “Sir Knight, have you...have you ever been afraid? Truly afraid?”
The knight stretched and lay back on his blanket. “Many times,” he said as he closed his eyes.
David finally looked at him, for a long long time, then returned to watching the embers dance into the darkness. One final shooting star flared into brilliance as he sighed and whispered, “I haven’t. Not like this.”