The Silent Wood
A boy was lying on his stomach on the topmost tower of a small, square castle, basking like a lizard in the sun. There was a book open on the lichened stone in front of him, and one slightly grubby finger traced the illuminations on the page. Neither he nor the book was supposed to be there at all, but he had slipped away from his many guardians to lose himself in the enchanted world of Parsifal and the Grail quest. When he was done with reading, he would simply doze on in the warm afternoon sun or look out, lofty as a falcon, over the world that surrounded the castle.
Even from the high tower it was a small enough world, for the castle, the gardens, and the parkland that surrounded it were contained by a high stone wall. The wall snaked for miles between the park and the white dusty road, and even the local village lay inside the great wrought-iron gates.
Sigismund, for that was the boy's name, couldn't remember the gates opening since the day his father had first brought him to the castle, several years before. He supposed they must open sometimes to let his father's couriers pass, and the merchants who brought luxuries from the capital, but he had never seen it happen, not even when he raced to the top of the tower to watch a departing caravan. There was always something that distracted his attention at the critical moment--or the dust in summer, or snow of winter, would be too thick for him to see the gate at all.
Sigismund could lie for hours watching the road and imagining the long leagues to the capital, with all the towns and great houses, woods and fields, along its length. He would daydream of the adventures that might befall a traveler along the way, for there were still tales told of both faie and ogres dwelling in these remoter provinces. Sigismund's tutor, Master Griff, might look down his nose at such tales, but Sir Andreas, the castle steward, would shake his head and say that you couldn't take anything for granted, not in this country. Sir Andreas himself would never say more, but Wenceslas, who worked in the stable and was a particular friend of Sigismund's, said that Sir Andreas's own father had been killed fighting ogres. He too had been the King's steward and led his men against the ogres when they began killing travelers and raiding outlying farms.
This story always gave Sigismund a shiver down his spine, because it was both exciting and sad at the same time. He liked to imagine riding out in the same way when he was older, protecting the people from outlaws and monsters, except that in these daydreams Sigismund always overcame his opponents and set any wrongs done to right. His favorite dream, however, was of the day when his father would come riding back from the endless rebellions and outright wars in the southern provinces. Then, thought Sigismund, his eyes half shut against the sun's glare, they would go adventuring together--perhaps along the fabled Spice Road and into the Uttermost East, where dragons flew like silken banners in the noonday sky and men spoke in strange tongues.
He didn't like to think about what would happen if his father never came back, if he was killed fighting in the south. Sigismund supposed that he would have to return to the capital if that happened and be crowned king in his turn, although he would much rather ride out alone, like Parsifal on the Grail quest. I could be a knight-errant, he thought, and make my own way in the world, as princes used to do in the high days of King Arthur--or the Emperor Charlemagne, when Roland held the pass at Roncesvalles.
"But not crown princes," Master Griff had said on the one occasion when Sigismund voiced this dream aloud. "You'll find that was only younger sons, even then. The oldest son still had to be responsible and mind the kingdom."
Thoughts of princes-errant and the Grail quest drew Sigismund's eyes away from the eastern road to the great Wood that stretched for league on tree-tossed league into the west. Every sort of tale was told about that Wood: that it was the home of witches and of faie who would lure the unwary down into their hollow hills. Some stories even said there was a castle hidden deep in the forest, although there were as many tales as there were trees when it came to the nature of the occupant.
One story, usually told in whispers, claimed that the hidden castle was the seat of a powerful sorcerer, another that it belonged to the Queen of the Faie, She-of-the-Green-Gold-Sleeves. There were other tales again that made it a lair of dragons, or basilisks, or trolls that munched on the bones of men. Sigismund had asked Master Griff for the truth of it, but his tutor had shaken his head.
"Trolls that munch the bones of men! You're getting too old for such stories, Sigismund." He had squinted out the library window into the enclosed garden below. "All that is known for certain is that your great-grandfather placed an interdict on the Wood, forbidding anyone to go there. But the reason for the ban was never set down, and now even your father's council seems to have forgotten why." He shrugged. "Yet from what Sir Andreas says, no one in these parts has ever broken it."
Sigismund wondered whether this meant that something particularly bad had happened in the Wood during his great-grandfather's time, so bad that no one wanted to go there anyway. The old western gate into the castle was long since walled up, but there was still a remnant of a road that must have run into the forest once. It was little more than two rutted and stony wheel tracks now, but Sigismund had followed it one day, making his escape from the castle by means of a mossy channel that had once been the moat, and a culvert under the outer wall. The road did not go far, petering out into a bridle path within a few hundred yards of the castle wall, and fading away altogether beneath the forest eave.
It had been very dark and quiet beneath the canopy, a heavy, listening silence. There was no call of bird or insect, no whisper of a falling leaf--not even the wind stirred. Sigismund had felt the fine hairs lifting along his forearms and up the back of his neck, and taken a step back.
Excerpted from Thornspell by Helen Lowe. Copyright © 2008 by Helen Lowe. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.