A dry heat brewed its arid winds over the Chang people for a second year in a row. Heat rays pulsating over the sunbaked soil left the ground a searing plain, unsuitable for crops along with the livelihood of many of the farmers. As scores of the resident planters packed their belongings and left for the capital, so too seemed the general temperament of many of the remaining inhabitants of the village.
Arnold’s father was often the center of ridicule for many in the community, deemed an eccentric storyteller by some, but a frenetic beggar by most others. And though the sickly man was popular with the youngest of the children, the elderly disapproved of their association with what they deemed to be a “mad boar let out of its harness.”
At the time, Arnold viewed his father as a monolith to a naïve personal heroism. Like any other child toward their father, he saw no reason to dislike his. Despite admittedly soiled rags and a lumbering disposition, he carried himself with a smile, greeting others through their averted gazes and lowering his head respectfully under the boot of some supposed superior.
Under the creaking visage of the village schoolhouse, Arnold faced similar treatment with the children of more affluent villagers being told to steer clear of the child of the “mad boar.” Though he lacked neither the physical nor the mental aptitude of any other of his age, the youth would eventually find that his social ostracizing by association was more than a reason for his becoming an outcast.
As the phantom heat held at the decrepit doorways of empty houses, simple ridicule evolved intrinsically into scorn, then into contempt. As Arnold wove through alleys and avenues, reenacting scenes from his father’s nightly tales of adventure, he would sometimes overhear the toxic murmuring of on-looking elders, their glares searing into the back of his neck. Spitting vehemently under their breaths, the youth would often scurry away, in fear of being shouted at another time.
Arnold disregarded the whispers as a factor of life for those of an inferior social standing. And though they made their home atop the decayed loft of an abandoned stable home by the fields, the youth could hardly wait every night for the new tale his father was to tell him that day.
Staggering up the makeshift ladder of crooked branches, Arnold’s father peeked his head over the straw covered boarding of their meek home. A hanging oil lamp caught light of a new set of bruises that were wrought across his face in its orange glow. Blackening the socket around his eye, the wound streaked its ugly luster down the man’s cheek, ending in a painful cut set over the corner of his lip. A grimace momentarily captured the boy’s façade, before divulging into a smile of which his father returned through a set of stained teeth.
“Your father fought giant this afternoon Arnold. And what a magnificent fight it was!” the man boasted hoarsely, pulling himself over to the beaming youth and retelling the accounts of that day’s “adventure.”
The two would frequently indulge themselves with these tales. Ones about holy knights battling insurmountable odds were the stories that most captured the boy’s imagination. Huddled under ambient lamplight with his knees tucked into his chest, Arnold could allow his mind to wander through the longwinded epics his father and the storybooks from the schoolhouse were able to provide him.
“Now Arnold, what do you think of the heroes in tonight’s story?” his father would ask, clipping his teeth through a dried acorn and offering the rest to the boy.
“The heroes? Well, they’re similar to the knights from the capital cities are they not? Warriors on the search for greatness and glory,” Arnold would answer. His father smiled at the answer.
“The holy knights hm?” the man mused, “How about yourself Arnold? Do you wish to be a holy knight one day? Like those in my story? Or like the ones from the capital cities?”
“Of course. That way many people and villages would know of me, and you and I would no longer need to sleep in an old stable home,” the youth replied. The boy’s father smiled at him silently, his dark eyes flickering smokeless flames under the lamplight. “If I was a holy knight, all villagers would kneel to you, wouldn’t they father?”
His father laughed, rustling the youth’s hair into a messy bundle and bringing the boy into his lap. In doing so, the tired man directed a finger, passed the hanging lantern, to a gap in the roofing. Through the breach, the night sky smiled down its white luminance across the boy’s face.
“Can you see out there Arnold?” the man gestured, “Now tell me son. What do you see about the stars tonight?”
“Well, they’re the same… they’re bright!” the boy answered excitedly, twirling his head around to see if were correct.
“Right,” the man chuckled, “They all shine gloriously don’t they? But that’s just it Arnold. No matter the direction, the place on this planet or at what time you view them, if you look up into the sky and see the stars looking down at you, they’re all just stars.”
The boy veered his head toward his father, staring back at him, puzzled. Shifting his weight in the man’s lap, the boy had trouble making the connection between the two questions presented to him.
“What do you mean?” the youth asked, prompting another short laugh from his father.
“Now you see Arnold, those stars that you see are just like you and me. Out there they all glow brightly. Perhaps not to the same magnitude as every other, but they all glow just the same,” the man smiled. “Now think for a moment, if you compare those stars with the rest of humanity, do you think you’d be able to find the hero among them in the sky?”
Arnold thought for a moment, returning his gaze outside the crevice in the roof.
“The ones that shine the most brightly. Correct?” the boy answered. His father shook his head slowly.
“No my son. Among them, true heroes do not try to outshine the other stars as a true knight does not seek glory or greatness,” his father chuckled, “Just the same, it doesn’t matter whether or not the star shines brightly. Each one of them could be great in their own way. The stars don’t search for greatness son. There are more important things in life then the search for glory.”
“But if heroes don’t fight for honor or greatness, what do they fight for?” Arnold asked.
His father leaned his back up against the wide post erecting from the floor below. Taking his son and bringing him close to his heart, the man shook his head in response.
“Perhaps you’ll find that out for yourself. Look forward to that day, my son,” he replied.
Arnold rubbed his hands against his ears. Wrenching his eyes open through the crust of his eyelids, the youth was stirred by a sudden clamor that filled the streets outside. He peered out the gap in the roofing, a stream of moonlit rays cascading into the darkness of the rafters.
The youth lethargically felt around the emptiness of the void, noticing the noise outside becoming greater. Through the slits between the wood paneling, Arnold could see plates of red light permeating into the withered stable. The steady row of heavy stomping and crackling fire was accompanied by a conglomeration of muffled shouts and swears as the ensuing noise edged ever nearer.
“Father… what’s happening outside?” the boy asked tiredly, wiping at his eyes and searching for the man within the darkness.
Unable to find his father’s form under the blanket of black, Arnold knelt up and struck his flint up to the oil lantern hanging from above. Once the light had sufficiently dispersed throughout the rafters, the boy found that he was alone with the ominous creaking of the aged carpentry.
A sudden rustle from below caused the youth to prop his back against the dry haystacks at the corner. Arnold’s eyes widened as a vague figure blasted through the stable doors and quickly began scaling the ladder.
“Turn the lamp off Arnold. Quickly!” the boy’s father ordered in a hushed yet frantic voice, jetting his head over the loft. Arnold sighed, relieved, slowly ambling over to the man.
“Father there’s-,” he began.
As the man’s face came into view, Arnold set his sight upon a dark red gash dripping over the man’s left eye, sending a river of crimson saturating the floorboards. The boy recoiled, nearly letting out a yelp before his father cupped a dirty hand over his mouth, silencing him.
“Quiet son!” the bloodied man gnashed through gritted teeth. The youth breathed in speckles of dirt that laced the man’s hand.
The sounds outside the stable grew audibly. Blowing out the light of the lantern, Arnold’s father sifted his gaze quickly through the loose paneling of the walls and brought the boy’s head closer to the floorboards.
“We have to leave this place,” he muttered hurriedly.
“What happened to-,” the boy tried.
His father lurched a grasping hand at the youth’s arm, dragging him down from the loft and into a bundle of hay beneath them. Sputtering wheat from his lips, Arnold could feel the storming rumble of the commotion outside growing ever closer to the stable, the light outside now sending streaks across his father’s damaged face. Among the enveloping racket, the youth could detect the reverberant barks of the village hounds howling along with the mob.
The man took his son by the wrist, whisking him from out the hay and pulling his disorientated body from out the stable. The frigid cold of night hacked its divergent belts across the youth’s body, causing the boy to clutch tightly at his arms.
Craning his neck back, Arnold could see a now amassing mob culminated around the stable house, torches in hand and shouting angrily at the empty building.
“What’s happening father? Where are we going?” the boy huffed, steam rising to sting his pupils.
“The townspeople… they say a young girl was attacked during the night. They seemed convinced that I’ve done it,” the man replied, dragging the boy down the road.
Distant barks echoing through the void, the two broke through the obstructing ditch dividing the road from the fields. Dead wheat and withered stalks jutted through Arnold’s foot wrappings, stabbing at his feet. As the unrefined cloth absorbed the chilled droplets of the nightly dew, the two hiked over a low hill, momentarily out of sight from the raging mob. They slowed briefly to catch their breath, Arnold’s father sweeping his head in cautionary scans across the field. As the youth motioned to peer over the knoll in a similar fashion, his father whirled him around and held tightly at his shoulders.
“Listen carefully my son. If you run this way through the field, you’ll eventually come across-,” he started before flinching at the sound of encroaching howls. “You’ll eventually come across a riverbed. With any luck, there’ll still be a stream.”
Arnold shook his head confusedly, holding tightly at his father’s hands.
“What do you mean father?” the youth stammered anxiously.
“Father must leave you for a short time, Arnold. Only a short time. But in that time you just do as father tells you and follow where I’m pointing through the field. Understand?” the man restated quickly, gesturing out into the darkness.
“But where are you going father?” the boy stuttered, gripping at the hem of the man’s tunic.
“Father must… father must make sure the goblin army doesn’t capture you. Yes. Father must ensure that you escape safely my son,” another volley of barks rung through the bleak night air, tightening the man’s grip around the boy’s shoulders. “Father will only leave you for a short time. Long enough to lead the goblin army away. Understand?”
The boy, through fear-stricken eyes could only nod obediently under his father’s painful grasp. Loosening slightly in relief, the man brought his lips to the youth’s forehead, leaving a dribble of wet blood careening passed Arnold’s eye.
“Now if you follow the river upstream, you’ll eventually come upon a capital city. Like the ones from your storybooks. If father doesn’t return by the time you get to the riverbed, follow the stream by yourself until you reach the city. I’ll meet you there Arnold,” the man smiled under the thoughtless gaze of the moon.
“Y-you’ll meet me?” the child stuttered.
“Yes son. I will meet you there.”
“What if I can’t find you in the city father?” the boy asked shakily, now ripping at the grated quality of his father’s clothing.
“If… if you can’t find me then… then search for something else my son,” the man replied.
“Y-yes. The meaning behind the story I told you! Search for the meaning in your life Arnold. Do this while you wait. Do this until I can come and find you. You will do this won’t you my son?” the weary man smiled, blood pooling over his lips and chin.
Arnold nodded rigidly again, summoning a smile across his father’s face. Turning his head toward the sound of ensuing barks and shouts, the emanating glow of the torch fires haloed over the hill, painting a heavy shadow across the floor. Arnold’s father turned his gaze to the youth one last time, his one open eye reflecting a mixture of the glaring fire and indifferent moonlight.
“Good boy. Very good my son,” his father exhaled. Though opening his mouth as if to continue, the man simply nudged the youth toward the forest of dried stalks. “Go now my son! Don’t turn back! Go!”
Arnold quickly barreled through the ever lengthening field of matted wheat, kicking dirt behind him in his wake. Through closed lids and gritted teeth, the boy ran until the frigid wind stole the moisture from his lungs.
Lapping over the hills and bee lining in the direction his father had set him off to, the youth eventually stumbled into the pebbled banks of the mostly desiccated river. There, clutching tightly at the stray rocks lining his hands, the boy bit furiously into his own lip, reiterating his father’s orders continuously in his mind.
“Father will find me at the capital… he will,” the boy murmured, standing himself up again.
In the distance, as the youth arched his neck backwards, he could see the sweltering flicker of flames bounding endlessly across the deadened field of wheat. Vague shadows cast by the fire’s ravishing light sneered and howled into open air. And the fire, veering higher with every intake of the midnight breeze, flaked at Arnold’s skin, even from its distance.
The youth turned away in resolution, wiping at his eyes as he muttered a recounting of one of the tales his father had told him. Whispering lightly under his breath, the boy made his way down the stream to a backdrop of hellish bellowing and laughter.