Chapter 1—A Boy's Story
Fourteen-year-old Caleb trembled as he sat alone in the jail cell in Summit Point, Montana, fearful of what would happen next. Whatever happened, he knew it would be bad. The deputy sheriff would soon return to send him back to the foster home—or worse. He knew stealing was bad, very bad, but he'd thought he didn't have a choice. He had spent his last few dollars on food three days ago, and, this morning, he'd been so hungry he'd stolen a couple of sandwiches from the deli case at a local curb market. When he'd been caught, he'd wished he could just sink into the pavement. As Caleb reflected on his situation, he heard the deputy sheriff's boot pounding the corridor.
The deputy sheriff had brown hair and smooth skin, and he was thin. Caleb doubted the guy had even hit thirty. The tall man opened the cell and said, "Come on. It's time for us to have a talk." Seeing no other choice, Caleb got up, followed him to his office, and took the chair next to his desk. A 2006 calendar from a local drug store hung on the wall behind the desk, and Caleb saw that no one had torn off the April page, though it was mid-May.
"What's your name?" the deputy sheriff asked.
Caleb had been questioned by the police before, so he played it tough and kept quiet. He focused his attention on a wall clock over the deputy sheriff's head. The second hand spun around for nearly a minute.
"You're not helping your situation, you know."
Still, Caleb said nothing.
"You know that if I don't return you to your home, I'll have to call the state juvenile authorities."
Caleb crossed his arms and kept quiet.
"The store owner is furious. He wants to slam you in jail."
"Better that than being in a foster home," Caleb snapped.
"So you do talk. Hi, my name is Ben, and you can call me Ben." The deputy sheriff smiled and extended his right hand to shake, but Caleb kept his arms crossed. "Are you hungry? I am."
Caleb said nothing, but Ben picked up the phone, called a Chinese restaurant, and ordered two meals. "Life is always better when you're full," he said.
"So how did you wind up in our fair town?" Ben asked, while they waited for the food.
"I hitchhiked from Nolen's Butte, caught a ride in a battered pickup with some creepy, short guy with a big nose. After I got in, I saw he had a gun, and I got scared. I thought he might try to kidnap me or something. When he stopped to get gas, I said I had to use the bathroom, which was at the back of the building. Then I ran behind the buildings along Main Street, while the man was pumped gas, and ducked into that curb market." Caleb realized he was chattering like a three-year-old and shut up.
"He may have been harmless," Ben offered, "but better safe than sorry. I suppose you know it's dangerous to hitchhike. Where were you heading?"
"Nowhere in particular."
The deliveryman arrived, and Ben paid him, opened the bag, and pulled out several containers of food, drinks, and chopsticks. He slid two containers and a drink across the table to Caleb. Then Ben started eating his meal with the chopsticks.
The smell of chicken with Chinese vegetables rose in the air, making Caleb's mouth water, but he made no move to eat until Ben had half-finished his meal. When he couldn't stand it any longer, he opened up his container and started to reach in with his fingers, but Ben stopped him by clearing his throat and passed him a plastic fork. Caleb took a bite of food and asked, "Do you hate me, too? Everybody hates me."
"No, I think you're a nice kid who has had it real bad. Why did you run away from your foster home?"
Caleb looked down and said, "I was afraid. They were going to beat me up again."
"Guys at school?"
Caleb nodded and said, "I tried to fight them, but they always ganged up on me. And I'm the one who gets in trouble."
"What about your foster parents, didn't they help you?
Caleb shrugged, staring at his hands. "No, they didn't believe me. They wouldn't do anything about it."
Did they punish you?"
"No, they just ignored me when I complained about it. They said I just made it up."
"So where did you hide?"
Surprised, Caleb looked up. "In the library. How did you know?"
"I knew another boy with the same problems." The deputy sheriff paused and smiled. "He eventually solved them."
Caleb stared at the man a long minute, and then the realization hit him. "It was you, wasn't it?"
"Yes." The deputy sheriff smiled again and said, "I'm an orphan."
Just when Caleb was beginning to relax a bit, he thought of something that made him tense up. "How do I know you aren't lying?"
"I don't have a reason to lie. I believe you aren't lying. I think you'd rather go to jail than lie."
"I never get away with lying. It just makes things worse." Caleb looked down and sighed. "Jail's better than being beat up."
"Fighting is never good. Getting beat up is never good. Running away is never good. Sometimes you don't have a choice, but you can't let people keep beating on you."
"How do I stop it?" Caleb asked.
"I can't give you a good answer to that." Ben looked Caleb directly in the eye and said, "I feel the answer you need may come sooner than you think."
"You're not going to tell me, are you?" Caleb asked, feeling bitterness and disappointment.
"The only thing I know to tell you is that you have to learn to defend yourself. You can't afford to let yourself be beat up."
Caleb started to ask how, but the deputy held up a hand and said, "You're still in big trouble. I'll have to put you in the jail cell while I try to fix this problem you have."
"And then you're going to call the juvenile authorities, aren't you?" Caleb asked, while looking at his feet.
The deputy sheriff sighed and said, "I have to." He put Caleb in the cell and left the office. Caleb spent a long, lonely hour stewing over the situation. When the deputy sheriff returned, he opened the cell. "It seems your name is Caleb," he said, as he led him back to the office.
As soon as he entered the office, Caleb noticed the front door was slightly ajar. Another man stood in the middle of the room—a very tall, broad-shouldered man with a large knife tucked in his belt. The man looked at him with hard-set eyes. Caleb spooked and bolted out the door.
The sun shone brightly outside, but before Caleb could get his eyes adjusted to the light, he crashed into a wall of flesh, bounced back a step, and looked up. A massive, spotted gray horse stared down at him.
Caleb looked up and saw a young, redheaded girl looking down over the horse's shoulder. "She's a Percheron. She's a real beauty, isn't she?"
"She's a monster!" Caleb yelled.
A hand on Caleb's shoulder turned him around. The big man looked down at him and said, "You'd better come back inside." Caleb followed him back into the office and sat in the chair in front of the desk. The man pulled another chair up close to Caleb and sat down.
"I've made the call to the state juvenile authorities," the deputy sheriff said. "It seems they know about you, Caleb. Someone must have it in for you. You have quite a long record of running away from foster homes. They want to send you to the juvenile center. Do you understand what that means? It means no foster homes, no running away, and no freedom. It means you could be behind walls until you're eighteen. Not just overnight."
"I'll escape," Caleb snapped, but he began to tremble and clenched his hands into fists, hoping the men didn't notice his white knuckles.
The deputy sheriff said, "I doubt it. The juvenile center is like a prison. Kids just don't escape from there. The state is sending a car down here to pick you up. It should be here within an hour, maybe sooner. The report says you're an orphan. Do you remember your real parents?"
Caleb looked down at his lap and mumbled, "No, I was a baby when they died. I cried a lot, and nobody would adopt me. Nobody will adopt me now."
"You have no family, no other relatives?"
Caleb mumbled, "No."
"Foster homes don't seem to work for you, and your prospects of being adopted are slim at best. Unfortunately, the folks at the juvenile center think they're well-equipped to handle you."
Caleb's shoulders twitching. He blurted out, "I can't go there. I'll die! I'm too small. There are gangs there. They beat up kids like me. Just let me go. I'll leave. You'll never see me again."
"I can't do that," Ben replied softly. "It would be wrong for me to turn you out like that. If it means anything to you, I really don't think you should go to the juvenile center. You're a good kid. You didn't do anything to deserve this. Sure, you stole a couple of sandwiches, but feeding yourself is just basic survival. It's just not my decision." He paused a moment and said, "However, I can give you another choice, one the juvenile authorities don't like, if you'll take it."
"What's that?" Caleb asked, almost pleading.
"Go with Raven here." The deputy pointed at the large man sitting next to him. "If you leave with him, the juvenile authorities can't touch you, at least not for a while."
Caleb looked up at the big man and asked, "Who is he?"
The deputy sheriff answered, "He's called Raven. He's a friend of mine, and he's just now leaving town. I guarantee you'll do better with him than with the state."
Caleb took a closer look at the man. He had huge hands. He wore a dark green jacket and trousers with knee-high, soft, leather boots. The man's eyes spooked him; they were a flinty gray, hard set in a weathered face. He looked to be very tough and ready for a fight.
Raven said, "I can promise you that you won't be locked up. You won't go hungry, and you won't be beaten or abused. There'll be some hard work involved, but I think you can handle it. However, if you don't like it, I'll bring you back here."
"Why should I go with you?" Caleb demanded. "You're just going to cut me up with that knife. How do I know you'll bring me back here? Besides, what kind of name is Raven? It sounds like a girl's name."
"It's just what I'm called." Raven paused a moment before saying, "I can promise you the adventure of a lifetime. You'll get a chance to do things you never imagined possible. For a start, you'll learn to ride horses. What you can and will do is up to you. It seems to me to be much better than your other choice."
Caleb looked down at his feet and considered this for a long minute. For some reason, he believed the man. The hard work part scared him, but the adventure part drew him in. He had always dreamed of escaping to a different world. Ever since he had discovered adventure books in the library, he had wanted a different life. He looked at Raven and then at Ben and asked, "Why are you doing this?"
The deputy smiled. "Like I told you, you remind me of myself when I was young. I don't want you to go to the juvenile center. I think you can do better if you have a chance. If you continue the way you're headed, I think you'll have a bleak life. Living on the street or in the juvenile call is an invitation to gang violence. Raven helped me once, and I'll bet he could help you. He didn't tell you, but the hard part is that he'll make you keep up with your schoolwork."
"Do I have a choice?"
"Yes, of course you have a choice. Raven is a fair and good man. And he'll teach you how to defend yourself against bullies. His word is gold, and he'll do right by you. In the juvenile center, who knows what'll happen to you? I think you'll do much better with him. I think you'll find it interesting and fun." Ben leaned forward, looked Caleb in the eye, and asked, "Do you want to keep running away like you're doing now?"
Caleb considered it a long minute. This had to be better than prison. He could always escape. He said, "Okay, I'll go with Raven."
"Good," Ben said. "You'd better be going because there isn't much time before the state car gets here. I'll see what I can do to placate the store manager. I'm a good friend of his son." Raven and the deputy signed some papers. Then they all stood up, and Raven said, "Let me properly introduce you to Amara."
Raven led Caleb outside to meet the redheaded girl, who now stood on the ground. She held the reins to four horses. Raven told Caleb, "This is Amara." Turning to her, he said, "This is Caleb." Amara quickly nodded and said, "I prefer to be called Red."
Caleb thought Red was a year or two older than he was, and she was a little bit taller than he was. She extended her right hand, which was small and calloused, took his hand, and shook it with an iron grip. She dressed similar to Raven, but she also sported a gray, hooded cloak with her curly, copper hair spilling out, brilliant in the morning sun.
"Why don't you like to be called Amara?" Caleb asked.
A small storm passed over her face. "Just call me Red, and we'll get along," she snapped. Then, in a calmer voice, she said, "Here, let me introduce you to Easy Rider." She passed the leads of three horses to Raven and led out a brown horse with the white legs that was saddled and loaded with large bags. "You'll ride him. He's a gelding and quite gentle."
"But I've never ridden a horse," Caleb said.
Red smirked and said, "Well, you could walk, but I wouldn't suggest doing that. We have an awfully long way to go. Besides it's easy."
He suddenly got a cold feeling in his stomach about the whole adventure. "I don't know," he said.
"You could still stay with the deputy," Raven said. "You don't have to come with us."
Caleb had heard enough. Just the thought of the juvenile center made him shudder. He walked over to Red and whispered, "How do I get on him?"
She smiled and showed him how to get onto the horse by first mounting the horse herself. She dismounted and had Caleb place his foot in the stirrup, grab the saddle, stand up on the stirrup, and swing his other leg over the saddle all in one motion.
Red kept the reins, tied a lead to them, and then she mounted the Percheron. She turned to Caleb and said, "It's easy to sit on the horse. Don't kick or squeeze with your legs. It'll confuse him, and he might try to run away with you."
Raven tied the brown packhorse's leader to his own black horse's saddle and quickly mounted.
Ben looked up at Raven and said, "You'd better hurry up. The state car will be here soon. I can't keep them from taking him if they show up. But before you go, I have something for Caleb." He stepped into his office and came out with a heavy coat with a deputy sheriff's badge on it. He pulled the badge off, handed the coat up to Caleb, and said, "You'll need this."
Caleb took the coat and thanked him, not wanting to appear ungrateful. He put the coat on despite it being too large and too warm.
Raven clucked his horse to a walk and turned it down a side street. Red followed on the Percheron with Caleb in tow. He found it easy to sit on the horse just like Red had said. He had only the saddle horn to hold onto, but he felt relatively safe.
They quickly reached the edge of town, started up a large, grassy hill, and soon entered a line of trees. "Watch your head or a branch will knock you off," Red remarked looking back at Caleb. He thought, She ought to watch out herself, sitting on the huge horse. They continued ascending through the trees, not seeming to follow any marked path.
When they reached the top of the hill, they entered a large clearing in the woods. "We're going up there," Red said, pointing up at several mountains in the distance.
Caleb was taken aback by the immensity of the mountains, which didn't look that far away. "How long will it take to get there?"
"About a day and a half, then we go through the pass between those two peaks." She indicated two of the closer mountains. "Then it's one more day."
Caleb tried to figure the distance just in case he decided to escape. "How far is that?"
"Farther than you can walk in a week. It's all rough, up and down, switchbacks and rivers."
"Where will we stay tonight?"
"We'll camp out in the open. Camping is fun, but sometimes things don't go as expected, and you wake up with a wolf in your bedroll." Caleb almost gasped, but she grinned and winked at him, and he quickly realized that she had played with him. "Just kidding, but you really do get used to sleeping outside. Besides I've never seen a wolf in these parts."
They continued past the clearing, going back into the woods and following a mostly western course up and down hills until they eventually descended into a forested valley. The trees were enormous and spaced well apart. The going was easy, with very little undergrowth to slow them down, the ground, almost level and soft. The horses' breathing and hoof beats were the only sounds.
They soon came to a stream, and Raven stopped to water the horses. Red pulled three packets from the Percheron's saddlebags and gave one packet to Raven, who took it, went over to a large rock, and sat down to eat. She then gave a packet to Caleb and motioned for him to follow her.
They went upstream about fifty meters, found a log to sit on, and started to eat their dried fruit, which tasted surprisingly good. It consisted mostly of dried apples, pears, and raisins dusted with cinnamon and some other spices. "Do you like it?" Red asked. "I made it myself. Raven taught me how."
"Yeah, it's pretty good, if you're into this sort of stuff."
Red grimaced and said, "You'll eat plenty of dried fruit and vegetables in the next few months. You'll appreciate the variety soon enough."
Caleb looked in the direction of Raven and said, "He doesn't talk much does he?"
"No, but when he does, it's important. He teaches mostly by example. Pay attention to what he does." She brought up a soft, leather water skin and offered him a drink. Caleb suddenly realized how thirsty he was. He took several big gulps before he handed it back to her, and then she took a large swallow.
Caleb asked, "Why is he called Raven?"
Red chuckled. "That's easy. He's called Raven because he's a tracker. He finds people. Ravens are good at finding things. He received the name when he became a knight."
Caleb stared at Red in disbelief. "A Knight? There are no knights. You're joking, right?"
Red crossed her arms and gave him a challenging stare. "He's a knight. You'll see."
Caleb also crossed his arms. "I don't believe you."
Red shrugged and looked darkly at him. "Look, I'm not going to waste my breath. Wait and see."
Something about her manner said not to challenge her. "Okay, have it your way. He's a knight." Then Caleb asked, "Where are we going?"
Red's eyes lit up. She said, "We're going up to the high country, to the valley where we'll camp during the summer."
Caleb asked, "What do you do there?"
"We ride a lot, take care of the horses, learn self-defense, and archery.
"I mean what do you do for fun?"
Red laughed, "When the day's work is over, I get to ride Mary a lot. There's always something fun to do. Besides, most of the work is easy."
"Just us? All summer?"
"Oh, heavens no! Most everybody will be there." She spread out her arms to indicate a lot of people. "And yes, all summer. Isn't it magnificent?"
Caleb gulped, not sure he wanted the answer, and asked, "Who's everybody?"
"Just about the whole school."
Red looked perplexed and said, "Well, yes. It's more like a summer school."
All of a sudden, it came crashing down on him, his worst nightmare. School, the place he hated the most. It was the reason he'd run away this last time. He'd been bullied and beaten, and his lunch money had been stolen. Boys would trip him in the halls, and girls would laugh at him. There had been no help from his teachers or foster parents. Now he was going to a school he couldn't escape from. He exclaimed, "I hate school!"
Caleb ground his teeth. "Just because."
Red was quiet for a minute, but then she sighed and said, "You must have your reasons. I won't ask again, but I swear to you this school is like no other. This school is really good. The classwork is hard, but we have a lot of fun afterward."
Caleb asked, "What do you do there?"
"We ride a lot and take care of the horses, learn self-defense, and archery."
"I mean what do you do for fun?"
Red laughed. "When the day's work is over, we get to ride the horses for fun, play horse games, and other silly stuff. There's always something to do. Besides most of the work is fun."
Some music came through the trees. Red pulled a small fife from under her cloak, signaled back by playing a similar tune, and said, "Raven is calling us. It's time to get going." They returned to the horses, which were grazing by the stream.
Raven went over to the packhorse and retrieved something out of its saddlebags. Walking over to Red, he whispered in her ear. She nodded pulled some clothes out of one of the saddlebags, and handed them to him. Raven looked at Caleb and said, "Why don't you come with me? You need to do something."
Caleb decided it must be important, so he followed Raven downstream. When they were out of sight of the horses, Raven said, "Take off your coat."
"Take off your coat."
Raven furrowed his eyebrows and repeated in a more stern voice, "Take off that coat, or I'll take it off for you."
That got Caleb's attention. He opened his eyes wide, but quickly slipped the coat off and handed it to the Raven, who tossed it aside. "Now what?"
"Here are some clean clothes. Amara is loaning you one of her uniforms. You're going to take a bath"
Caleb yelled, "No, no way! Besides, I don't know you!"
"Before you get back to the horses, you're going to wash up, both you and your clothes. You smell like a goat."
"Suit yourself." Raven grabbed Caleb by his belt and shoulder, lifted him, and tossed him into the stream. He landed with a large splash and was completely submerged before rapidly coming up, struggling for breath. The shock of the freezing water seized up his muscles, and he couldn't speak.
Raven reached into his pocket, pulled out a bar of soap, and held it out to him. "I'm going back to the horses. Wash everything, especially where the sun doesn't shine. Then wash those clothes and throw them on the bank. When you're clean, get dressed and come back to the horses. We'll be waiting on you." He turned, climbed the bank, and walked upstream.
Caleb hastily pulled his sweater off and started scrubbing it with the soap. He tossed it on a rock then started with the rest of his clothes. He managed to clean his clothes and himself while freezing in the process. He rapidly climbed out of the stream and put on the shirt and trousers Raven had left for him. Then he slipped on the deputy's coat. He walked upstream to where Raven and Red were waiting, his sneakers squishing water.