Their world was hushed with that unique silence that only comes from a fresh blanket of snow. Tree branches in the forests of Wynnewood were laden with snow and ice, and occasionally, a limb fell to the ground with a great crash. Of course, such noises were also muffled by the whiteness around them. The evergreens, draped with large tufts of snow, looked as though they wore white rabbit furs to keep them warm and protected from the coming winds.
Yes, the winds were coming. John Brewer insisted that his elbow ached when a storm was coming, and Philip’s nose had been annoying him for the better half of the past hour. With each swing of the axe, the wood split, but his heart wasn’t in it. The fletcher’s wife’s body grew larger and more unwieldy every day. Philip had found Una trying to carry water from the well just last week. Since then, he’d been more conscientious than ever to ensure his master’s wife had everything she needed at her disposal. It was shameless how careless and selfish he’d been of late. His lessons with Broðor Clarke and archery practice with Peter, the head archer of Wynnewood Castle, had taken up so much of his time that he’d been remiss in his obligations to Tom Fletcher and Una.
He’d been excited when Tom suggested that perhaps Philip could help him crest the shaft of the arrows. The order from Castle Wynnewood to replenish their stock from the summer invasion was still unfinished. With Philip’s help, it would be completed much quicker. Alas, the moment Philip awkwardly picked up the paintbrush with which he was to put Tom Fletcher’s mark, Tom took it from him, deciding that cresting wasn’t the job for Philip. “Maybe next week we can try nocking or something,” he’d said apologetically, as his hands swirled the unique flourish that he painted onto the shaft of each of his arrows.
Instead, Philip recited his lessons of Bible, Pliny, and Aristotle under his breath as he mucked the stall of Tom’s goat, fetched water, and chopped wood. “A girl could do all I’m fit for,” he’d complained to Broðor Dennis.
Remembering the gentle minister’s remonstrance, Philip blushed anew. “If our Lord Jesus can wipe the feet of His own students— a job most demeaning and certainly only ‘fit for women’”— the cleric had emphasized Philip’s inference in a tone that was rebuke in itself, “then I believe it is not beneath the talents of Philip Ward to serve a woman who feeds, clothes, and shelters him.”
It was a cold Thursday in mid December, and he’d soon be expected in the chapel. Philip surveyed his work with a practiced eye and surmised that it was more than adequate. The wood and water should last Una at least until the next evening. He dried the axe carefully, hung it on its pegs in the lean-to he slept in during summer, and stacked a fresh load of wood next to the hearth.
“Is there anything you need Una? I could—”
“I’m fine, Philip.” She stirred the soup pot hanging in the fireplace and brought the spoon out to taste. “You run along to your lessons and make sure Broðor Dennis doesn’t prattle on for too long. You boys need a little time to play. You’ll all be men soon.” She passed him a chunk of bread and a flask of ale. “Supper’ll be ready when you return.”
When Philip had arrived at the Fletchers’ after the siege on Wynnewood Castle, Una’s prior antagonism toward Philip and his outcast of a friend had diminished a little. His battered face, broken nose, and the skin ripped from his knees had softened her heart some. He told stories of “the creature’s” bravery in protecting the lord of the castle’s daughter from the invaders, and who could not admire the child’s courage and loyalty to Lord Morgan and his little daughter Aurelia? Whether she’d agree that the terrifying creature that haunted the forests of Wynnewood and drifted through town, hiding in the shadows, was a child was another story. As to Philip’s safety in consorting with such a dubious personage, well, Una still objected but not nearly as vehemently as she once did.
Philip remembered all she’d done to try to ensure his comfort during his recovery from his injuries. He’d been horribly sick with a fever, having taken a chill in the castle dungeons. She’d helped his mother nurse him, made him nourishing soups, and brought him all the tastiest fruits and berries she could find. When Dove appeared on their doorstep, Una had stepped out of the house, walking to the tavern on contrived business in order to give Philip a visit from his little friend, despite her horror of having the town’s most frightful being in her home.
With a nod of thanks, Philip threw his cloak over his head, grabbed his hood from the peg by the door, and raced outside, pulling it on once again. It hadn’t had time to warm in the house, making him wish he hadn’t removed it. After taking a large bite of his bread, he slipped it into the pocket Dove had sewn to the inside of his cloak. That pocket was ingenious. She had several in her cloaks and knew exactly where everything was stashed.
The chapel was already warm when Philip arrived. Broðor Dennis stoked a fire in the corner fireplace of the chapel while waiting for the boys to arrive. “First as usual, Philip. One would think you were eager to get away from your work.”
“I’ve spent too much time away from my work these past months. Una is just happy to have an excuse to get me out from underfoot.”
“Aahh… the plague of every woman is a man in her way.”
Philip glowed. He was nearing thirteen and in just over a year, he’d be free of his apprenticeship. He’d be expected to know how to create fine arrows, and after a few years as a journeyman, he should apply to be a craftsman— a master fletcher. However, both Broðor Dennis and Philip knew that, unless something changed drastically, that day would never come. Tom Fletcher kept up part of his agreement. He kept Philip well fed, clothed, and gave him a comfortable place to live. The boy was allowed plenty of time to visit his family and study with the village minister, but he was not taught the trade that his parents had chosen for him. After four years of work at the fletcher’s cottage, Philip barely knew which species of wood Tom used. He certainly had no concept of what to do with it in order to create a serviceable arrow. For all of Tom’s excellence as a provider, as a master, he was a complete failure. While his friends learned a solid trade with which to support themselves, Philip fetched and carried wood and water, cleaned up after the few animals that the Fletchers owned, and occasionally made deliveries to customers when Tom was rushed for time.
“I think Tom might disagree with the hope of my ever becoming a man, Broðor Clarke. Each time he attempts to improve my education, I’m found wanting, and I’m returned to my simple tasks again.”
“Well,” Broðor Clarke said sympathetically as he pulled his bench closer to the fire. “You may not be ready to take over his art and trade, but no one can deny that you’ve mastered the rudiments of Latin perfectly. You are a natural scholar, Philip.”
“As Dove never ceases to remind me.”
Before Broðor Clarke could reply, the room filled with several of Philip’s closest friends. Angus, Aubrey, and Walter came in with a few of the younger boys at their heels. “Where’s Liam?”
“Home, sick. His modor’s thinking of calling for the midwife. Nothing she does helps.” Aubrey’s face told more than his words. Liam wasn’t expected to live.
“We’ll pray for Liam before we begin. Are John and Davy coming?”
Before the boys could answer their minister, the two boys in question burst into the chapel, slamming the door shut behind them. “Sorry we’re late,” they cried in unison as they rushed to warm their hands by the fire.
“Well now, first we must pray for Liam. Let’s ask that Jesus, who healed the widow’s son at Nain and Jairus’ daughter at Capernaum, would heal our friend here in Wynnewood.”
The boys all sat on the cold stone floor and bowed their heads as they’d been taught. Philip’s mind abandoned the communal prayer, as was often the case. He’d learned during his time in the castle dungeon to pour his heart out to the Lord in a way that reminded him some of how he told his brother Will everything that mattered to him— things he didn’t even tell Broðor Dennis, Lord Morgan, or his own father. It was that way with his prayer times. His heart overflowed with thanksgiving, praise, or beseeched the Lord Jesus for whatever pressed on him at the time, and he found himself immersed in prayer.
He’d recently confessed this to Broðor Clarke, and the amused minister had assured him it was nothing of which to repent. So, that afternoon he sat, nearly rigid, and prayed with everything in him that Liam Baker’s life might be spared. Even as his heart questioned if it was right to pray for something so specific rather than simply for the Lord’s will, he remembered his text of the day from several weeks ago. “Ye have not because ye ask not.”
“I thought today,” Broðor Clarke’s voice pierced Philip’s consciousness, causing him to end his prayers abruptly, “That instead of reviewing the stories we know so well, we might move onto learning a new one. I do not believe I’ve told you of Ananias and Sapphira. In his excellent storytelling style, Broðor Dennis carefully spun a tale of intrigue, deception, and punishment that clearly told the story of the husband and wife who lied to the Apostle Peter with such accuracy that no one could accuse him of embellishment, and yet it took much longer than the simple reading of the text to tell. He answered the boys’ questions, led them in a chant of praise, and sent them off to enjoy the little light left in the afternoon.
Once outside, the boys scattered. Aubrey and Philip were left standing on the steps of the chapel looking quite confused. “Is it a game or is everyone busy today?”
Philip shrugged. “I don’t know, but I don’t think I’ll stay if I’ve not been invited.”
“Well, Hugh would be pleased to see me home already. I think I’ll go back and help him clean the grindstone. He was saying it needed it last week.”
“We could hunt if you like…” His heart wasn’t in the invitation and Philip knew it showed the moment Aubrey spoke.
“Dove,” Philip growled impatiently. He’d grown to hate the way they spoke of his little friend.
“Dove,” Aubrey corrected amiably, “is probably hoping to see you anyway. You’ve been so busy around the fletcher’s, that I haven’t seen you go near the woods.”
Aubrey’s words were true. Philip had hardly seen his cloaked friend in a fortnight. With a hasty apology, Philip sprinted toward the culvert that separated the cliffs from the green at the edge of the forest. He trudged down the side of the culvert, up the other, and onto the green. As his feet dragged through the snow, he marveled at the difference between flying over the ground when it was covered in grass and trudging through winter’s groundcover.
The path through the trees to the clearing was difficult to follow now that snow covered the ground. The familiarity he thought he had with the trees now felt uncertain with the evidence of his previous treks to Dove’s clearing gone. The snow began falling as he stumbled between the trees. He groaned under his breath. If it got heavy, he’d lose his way again.
As he stepped into the small field surrounded by trees, a flash of gray showed near the opposite edge of the clearing. Philip grinned. So, that was her game. He ducked back into the woods and crept toward her, until he saw another flash just a dozen yards ahead of him. Quickly, Philip flattened himself against the trunk of the nearest tree, pulled his cloak tight around him, and as the muffled steps grew closer, he held his breath and waited.
The steps stopped just a few feet away from him. She was looking for him. He forced himself to breathe shallowly, and he tucked his mouth into his shoulder to hide the puffs of air. A crunch came from his right. He leaned left. Another crunch, softer this time, came again from the right. He waited for a dozen or so seconds and jumped. “HA!”
Dove jumped so quickly, her hood began to slide back from her head. Instinctively, Philip whipped his head around as though giving privacy to a half-dressed person. Simultaneously, Dove jerked the hood back in place before it flew off completely. Had Philip not turned, he certainly would have seen her face. He never knew if her face alone would give away her secret or if there was more to it than that. The day before, he’d met an elderly peasant farmer with a large purplish red mark over most of one side of his face and neck and wondered if that might possibly be Dove’s secret.
“You startled me! I thought you were nearby, but I didn’t know where.”
“Well, it’s about time. You always find me first.”
They trudged across the clearing, through the woods, and to the cottage that Dove shared with the midwife. At the door, Dove peeked inside and then beckoned Philip to follow. “Bertha isn’t back yet. She was called to help Liam at the castle.”
“I heard he was ill.”
“He has a fever and a cough.” She gave Philip a tankard of water. “It’s not good, Philip. It’s very bad.”
Before he could continue, Bertha burst through the door shutting it soundly behind her. “I am too old to be fighting my way through the snow anymore. It’s time I bought a donkey.”
“How is Liam, Bertha?”
The midwife glanced at him with a surprised look. “He’ll make it if that fool of a modor of his doesn’t keep withholding food and water. The boy was weakened, and his lips were cracked.”
“Not everyone has your expertise, Bertha.” A trace of humor hovered in Dove’s voice.
“I know they don’t, and furthermore, they’re much the worse for it. I—” She didn’t finish her sentence. A bowl of stew thrust into Bertha’s hands diverted her attention to more pressing needs.
Dove led Philip out the door and under the shelter of the trees. “She’ll sleep for hours if no one decides a snowstorm is the perfect time to birth.”
“I finally have some time to search for the unicorn. Where do you think we should look?”
“After dark, the moon will show hoof prints in the snow. We should meet in the clearing and then cross the fields to the Heolstor Forest near the Sceadu Caves. Bertha says that’s where they live.”
“Smart animals. People avoid those woods like a plague.”
Her voice echoed through the trees. “There are rumors that I was really born in there, and Bertha keeps me as a sort of talisman against the god of the village.”
“What is the ‘god of the village?’”
“Broðor Clarke’s god. After all, everyone knows that Bertha rejects your god. I’ve heard them talking in the tavern, and they speculate that there are hundreds of ‘creatures’ like me in those woods.”
“A whole colony,” she agreed, nodding. “Can you believe it?”
“I’ve never heard anything about it. What do they think you look like?” She giggled just as any little girl would. Philip couldn’t decide if it sounded out of place because she never seemed like a child, or if it was because he didn’t think such unflattering opinions should be funny to her.
“They think that I’m a demon child. I am blue and an old descendent of the druids and the Picts.”
“What! Blue! They think you’re blue?”
“Well, whoever was talking about me for a few nights when that minstrel was here did. The minstrel was actually singing about it.” Another giggle escaped as she sang a bar of the song. “England’s oldest blue-bloods, hide in Lord Morgan’s land…”
“Blue blood. That’s just ridiculous!” Impatiently, Philip waved his hands. “I’ll meet you in the clearing sometime after Tom and Una go to sleep.”
With a wave, he wove through the trees trying to retrace their earlier steps and failing miserably. The snow fell thickly, recovering his steps almost as quickly as he made them. “She told me to learn the trees instead of the ground,” he muttered to himself after backtracking twice. “I can’t believe I have to listen to a child, and worse, that she is right.”
Cloaked in Secrets
Searching for the elusive unicorns of Wynnewood's forests sends Philip and Dove on an adventure that threatens more than the freedom of the beautiful creatures.
Searching for the elusive unicorns of Wynnewood’s forests sends Philip and Dove on an adventure that threatens more than the freedom of the beautiful creatures. What lurks within the depths of the Sceadu? Will their quest to satisfy Lord Morgan’s desire to own a unicorn cost Dove everything— even her life?
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