Nathaniel looked over his shoulder to check on the young man riding behind him. Jared looked like a natural on the horse, his face rosy in the early morning chill. He had a slight smile on his face, only visible to Nathaniel because he had gotten to know the boy over the past few weeks. The boy tended to be quiet and reserved but animals brought something out in him. He actually looked alive when he was around his dog and now the horse.
Their journey so far had been easy. They had remained on the main road, trying to reach the town of Greensville where Nathaniel had heard a sooth resided. He hoped the sooth would help to guide him on his path The princess he had set out to rescue was rumored to be only a few towns north of there. It was unknown to him what beasts may be laying in what for him when he got there and he prayed that the sooth would be able to see the dangers ahead on his path.
They had been on the road for a few days when Nathaniel got tired of having to slow down because the boy couldn’t keep up with him on foot. Nathaniel didn’t blame the boy but it was making their travels far slower than they should be. When they stopped at Aldebourgh because of the dark clouds in the sky, Nathaniel told Jared to stay at the inn and keep an eye on the animals. The boy agreed, that slight smile making its way onto his lips.
Nathaniel traveled into the town, looking for someone to buy a horse from. He’d made the decision to buy a horse for the boy to use the night before when he found the boy near their campfire for the night, his toes swollen and blistered. The boy never let any pain show on his young face but Nathaniel knew he had to be in massive amounts of pain with every step he took.
Nathaniel traveled into town and stopped at one of the bars near the center. He spoke to a few of the men there, trying to find someone to buy a horse from. The best name he got was Benjamin who lived near the edge of the village. Nathaniel made it to the man’s house with no problems, knocking on the solid door when he arrived at the man’s house. The door opened without a sound, a few seconds after his knock. The man looked at Nathaniel with only a small amount of confusion in his eyes, not recognizing the stranger in front of him.
“Are you Benjamin?”
“Well yes sir I am. What can I do for you?” a burly man with a thick brown beard and piercing blue eyes replied.
“I heard you have horses for sale. I would like to take a look at them.”
“Yes, of course sir. They’re ’round back. If you’d follow me.”
The two men walked around the stone building to the barn near the back. The man opened the tall wooden door to the barn and led Nathaniel into the cozy warmth of the animal filled building. The comforting sounds of animals filled Nathaniel’s ears and he took a deep breath of the musty air.
“These here are the ones I got for sale. They’re all strong, reliable beasts,” Benjamin led Nathaniel to the left side of the barn where three horses were located in separate stalls with fresh water and some dried hay.
Nodding in appreciate of the care Benjamin took of the horses, Nathaniel took a long glance at the horses. Nathaniel felt an immediate attachment to the white horse that was farthest away. He took the few required steps across the hay covered floor to the beast. It was a magnificent horse, pure white with a tangle free mane, obviously well cared for.
“Anything I should know about this one?”
“Most even-tempered beast I’ve ever seen. Got the stamina of nothing I’ve ever seen. The niece named him Snowflake. Not the most original name, but what can you say to a five-year old who sees a white horse?” The man chuckled at the last bit, lost in the memories of the girl.
Nathaniel and the man negotiated the price of the horse, Nathaniel getting it down to a fair price. Ben even threw in a saddle with the sale, seeming to sense that Nathaniel didn’t have time to waste looking for somewhere to buy one.
When Nathaniel arrived back at the inn leading Snowflake behind him, Jared was in the barn, curled up with his dog, snoring slightly. Nathaniel chuckled at the sight, remembering the days when all he needed was nap with an animal to be satisfied. He only had to say the boy’s name a few times before he stretched and let out a long yawn.
Confusion covered his face when he saw Nathaniel with a second horse, not understanding what was going on. Nathaniel blamed it on the fact that the boy had just woken up, he was usually quicker on the uptake.
“The horse is for you to use on our travels. I’ve seen your feet when we stop for the night. You should have told me that they were bothering you.”
“I don’t want to be a bother sir. I get food every night and a safe place to sleep. And you don’t smack me around. I don’t need much more than that.”
“Well I don’t want you to lose your feet because of me so the horse is yours to use. His name is Snowflake. The niece of the man I bought him from named him.”
Jared’s eyes were shining with a combination of joy and wonder. This was the brightest Nathaniel had ever seen his eyes and the boy’s lips were slightly parted.
The boy went up to the horse and stroked a soft hand down the side of the horse’s strong neck. The horse whinnied in response and his head to look into the eyes of the boy next to him. A few moments passed, the boy and horse lost in each other’s eyes before Snowflake seemed to decided he like Jared and nudged him for another stroke down his neck.
Nathaniel couldn’t help but remember another boy like this, who’d only shown true joy when he was surrounded by the beasts that made him happy. Samuel had been the stable boy when he was growing up, working in the stable from the time he was old enough to help. Nathaniel wasn’t really supposed to talk to him but sometimes he managed to escape from his nurse and he was always found in the stable.
He first met Samuel when he was ten. Nathaniel had crept into the barn in the evening twilight, hoping to see the new horse his father had bought a few days earlier. The way his father talked about it he was almost expecting to see a unicorn hidden in the back corner of the barn. The nurse that told him that story had been sent away for “polluting” his mind with frivolous stories about things that didn’t exist.
After Nathaniel saw the new horse, a simple sleepy beast that didn’t do much more than blink at him when he looked into its stall, he decided to wander around the barn and see if there was anything interesting to look at. The goats were the same as they always were talking to each other in their goat voices. Nathaniel moved onto the cows next because they tended to be calm enough for him to pet without the worry of being trampled.
Samuel was in the last stall on the right side of the barn were the cows were kept. Nathaniel didn’t notice him at first because the boy was so quiet. He was a small child in worn, servile clothing with several patches sewn carefully into the elbows and knees. Nathaniel had never had his clothing patched, as he was never allowed to be rough enough in his play that he hurt his clothing.
As Nathaniel walked over to the boy, his boot hit a tool left lying on the floor, causing it to make a clatter that startled the boy in front of him. The boy turned around, a guilty look on his young face. He moved away from the cow he was petting, his hand coming to rest at his side.
“I’m sorry sir. I’ll get out of your way,” the boy said as he crept around the edge of the stall he was in.
“No it’s alright. I’m not really supposed to be here either. My name’s Nathaniel.” He stuck his hand out for the boy to shake, as he had been taught to do over the years by his many nurses.
The boy took Nathaniel’s hand with hesitation, like he was expecting it to be slapped away at the last second. His eyes were darting around the room, refusing to make contact with Nathaniel’s. Nathaniel noticed that his eyes were the most interesting shade of blue he’d ever seen. Like the blue of the ocean in the tapestry in the front hall, though the boy’s eyes contained a hint of green that the ocean was lacking.
“And your name is?”
The boy turned bright red before muttering something indistinguishable.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
“Samuel. Me name’s Samuel.”
“It’s nice to meet you Samuel.” Turning to look at the cows next to them Nathaniel asked, “Which ones your favorite? Mine’s always been that one in the corner. She’s such a surly beast. Reminds me of my aunt Mary.”
Samuel let out a small chuckled at the words and then covered his mouth with his hands, horror obvious on his face.
“Tis alright Samuel. She’s an awful woman. I laugh at her behind her back too.”
It took Samuel a few moments to calm down and then he seemed to remember the question that had been asked of him. “My favorite is the one in front. She’s got the sweetest eyes.”
The boys continued to talk for a while, moving from topic to topic with an ease that neither of them had experienced with anyone else. By the time Nathaniel went in for the night, he and Samuel were firm friends.
The boys continued to meet up every couple of days in the barn. They talked about anything and everything for hours on end, nestled in the comfort of upper level of the barn where Nathaniel’s family stored random odds and ends for the animals. The left over saddle blankets made a wonderful cover for the hard floor of the barn and the boys took advantage of the many that had been left up there. Nathaniel told Samuel all the stories his nurses had told him, Samuel’s favorites being the ones about the unicorns and dragons, filled with fighting and adventures galore.
A loud pop from the fire startled Nathaniel out of his musings. Jared was sitting across the flames, his hand resting on the top of his dog’s head. He was staring straight ahead, his eyes unseeing of the burning wood. Mindlessly scratching the dog behind its ear, a spot that always reduced the beast to a puddle on the ground, Jared was perfectly still otherwise. Nathaniel had to appreciate that the boy was so attuned to his dog that he could find that spot without even thinking about it.
They were stuck in the woods tonight. Having to detour around an overflowing river had gotten them behind on their travels and they hadn’t made it to Woodbridge for the night. The stars shone brightly above them, twinkling and serene were they were visible in the gaps between the trees.
“My ma always loved the stars.”
Jared’s voice interrupted Nathaniel’s perusal of the stars above.
“She liked to tell me stores about them growing up, me ma did. Told me about a knight who climbed up the highest mountain in the world to touch the stars. He brought back a bit of star dust for his lady but she’d already moved on,” Jared looked at Nathaniel, seeming to think he would be told to stop talking like Rosalie always used to tell him when he started one of his stories. When Nathaniel merely gestured for him to continue, Jared took a breath and started up again.
“She left him for some rich bastard, his lady did. Said she didn’t want no man who would up and leave to go touch the stars. Ma said the knight was never the same after that. Always looking up to the stars that he so loved but had lost him his love. Climbed all the way back up, wanting to see that beauty again,” Jared paused to look at his dog for a moment. The fire crackled in the evening air, creating a small circle of warmth for the men seated near it. “When he got to the top, surrounded by all that star dust, all he could think about was his lady. My ma used ta say that he musta sat in that star dust so long he turned into a star. She always said he was that real bright one there, right above those little stars in a line.”
They sat in silence for a moment, both of them staring up at the star Jared had pointed out. The woods were mostly silent, the animals hidden away from the winter chill. The wind was calm tonight, only rattling the branches around them every so often. They were at peace for the night, guarded by the knight star nestled up above them. He shone like the fire, his twinkling a promise to keep them safe for the evening.