The Dragon’s Boy: Chapter One

Whap!

The slap against the back of Evann’s head hurt. So did the moment when his head bounced off the frame of the bellows as a result of getting the slap. If he’d seen it coming, he could have at least partially ducked it, and for sure not hit the bellows. But he’d been daydreaming again—which was why the slap was aimed his direction to begin with.

“You worthless shoat!”

Rubbing the back of his head, Evann looked around to see his father Edric, the village’s blacksmith, standing with his hands on his hips. He was glowering at his youngest son, which Evann was used to. He seldom pleased his father.

“I swear, boy, sometimes I think I’d be better off to swap you for three capons. At least they’d make a good soup. And if the farmer didn’t insist on a new knife to clinch the deal, I might just do it next market day. Now pay attention, and when I tell you to stop the bellows, do it!”

“Yes, Da,” Evann said, turning back to the bellows and starting them up again. Edric snorted behind him, then turned back to pick up the hammer he’d set down before he’d applied the palm of his very hard and calloused hand to the back of Evann’s head.

“Corfen,” Evann heard his father mutter as he returned to the anvil. The name meant ‘Empty-Head’. It wasn’t the first time Evann had heard it. Most of the village had used it in connection with him at one time or another. It had gotten to the point where it didn’t hurt any more. Much.

“Put the bar back in the fire for a bit, Jackonn,” Edric said to Evann’s oldest brother. “Get it good and red, then pull it out again. And you,” he turned to Evann, “just keep the bellows going slow and steady until I tell you to stop.”

“Yes, Da,” Evann muttered.

The rest of the day seemed to take forever to pass. Late in the afternoon, Edric had to set aside the project he was working on when one of the farmers brought in a plow horse in need of new shoes. The shoes were already made, so Edric had to deal with fitting them. He waved Evann off brusquely, and Evann wasted no time in leaving the forge.

“Evann,” his mother called out before he got two steps out of the forge. He stopped, frustrated, then turned and moved toward the door into the house where his mother stood holding a cloth bag. It looked heavy.

“Here,” his mother said, handing him the bag, which proved to be heavy indeed. “Take this to Geordy’s house.”

“Geordy the tanner?” Evann was taken aback.

“Do you know another Geordy in the village?” His mother’s sarcasm was sharper than usual. “Get going. They should have had that cheese yesterday, and I forgot.”

“Yes, Ma.” Evann pivoted and headed through the village. The blacksmith’s house and forge stood on the western side of the village, on the bank of the stream that flowed along the northern side of the village. The tanner and his tannery were a ways outside the other side of the village, downstream from everything else. After all, nobody wanted the smells and wastes of the tannery in their drinking water.

Chesserlin wasn’t very large, but Evann wasn’t in a hurry. He didn’t like the tannery. It stunk. And Geordy’s son Rickon was one of his least favorite people. Of all his age-mates that teased and bullied him, which was most of them, Rickon was one of the worst. He really hoped Rickon wouldn’t be at the house when he got there.

Evann collected a few greetings and smiles as he passed by the various houses and shops, mostly from the girls. He smiled or waved back, but didn’t stop. Most of them he couldn’t call friends, after all.

It wasn’t long, though, before he stood before the door of the tanner’s house, beside the small tannery yard. The air was still today, no hint of a breeze, but the odors of the tannery still managed to ooze out beyond its fences, old piss which was used in the tanning process, and the whiff of rotting meat from whatever raw hides were on hand that hadn’t been cleaned yet.

Evann lifted the clacker where it hung beside the door and let it fall. Just as the door started to open he inhaled a particularly noxious fume from the yard and fell to coughing, deep racking coughs. He felt a hand pound on his back a couple of times before he finally managed to stop and resume normal breathing. He looked up to see Geordy’s wife Lara looking at him with a smile.

“You okay, lad?” she asked.

“Yes,” Evann replied, breathing carefully.

He lifted the sack. “Ma sent this. She said you should have had it yesterday, but she forgot.”

“Ah,” Lara said, taking the sack. Her smile grew wider. “I’d forgotten as well. You tell her my thanks for this. Your Ma makes the best cheese in the village. I’ve not the knack for it, and even if I did,” she shrugged and dipped her head toward the tannery yard, “this isn’t the place for that kind of work.”

“I will, Mistress Lara.”

“Good day to you, then, Evann.”

He took his leave and left the area rather faster than he’d arrived. It wasn’t long, though, before he was back where the air was clear, and he could relax.

Chesserlin was respectable, as villages went. There were over a dozen houses, a tavern, his father the blacksmith and a potter in the village, and the tannery. No weavers, though. Most families wove their own cloth, or bartered for it. Finally, there were a number of farms outlying from the village.

They weren’t bound to a lord, which meant they had a little more freedom than many in the kingdom. But that also meant they had no one to look to for protection if brigands or such-like appeared with a mind to pillage. That was why every house and shop in the village had at least one good bow, and there were plenty of good long daggers—most of them made by Evann’s father—hanging from belts, both men and women. Old Enwulf Pigsong, son of even older Gramper Pigsong, had been a soldier or something when he was young enough to have a thick head of hair that wasn’t mostly grey, and after he’d come back home with a bit of money, he’d made sure that most everyone in the village, man and woman, youth and maiden, had at least some idea of how to use a bow and knew where the pointed end of a knife should go if there was any trouble—even Evann.

Enwulf Pigsong was out and about when Evann went back through the village. He was carrying his usual walking stick, but for a greybearded man, he never leaned on it much. Evann didn’t know Master Pigsong, not really. The older man was one of the leading elders of the village; indeed, according to Evann’s father, hardly anyone would speak against the man. One of the reasons for that, though, was Master Pigsong was very shrewd and very perceptive and probably was the most common-sensical man around, again according to Edric. Evann’s father approved of Master Pigsong. This wasn’t necessarily a recommendation to Evann, given his relationship with his father.

Master Pigsong was standing with Cordhe, who seemed to be more than a servant and less than a partner to the master. Master Pigsong watched Evann as he walked by. He said nothing, and his face was neither happy nor angry nor concerned—just regular. But Evann felt a bit of a prickle on his back after he walked by.

Evann reached the western side of Chesserlin. He tried to slip past their house where it stood on the outskirts. “Evann,” he heard his mother call out from inside the house. He managed to nip around the corner and scurry into the trees behind the house as if he hadn’t heard her before she could get to the door and see him.

Evann knew this stretch of trees quite well, and made his way through them until he came to the streamside. There was a huge sycamore tree that grew by the stream that was his favorite place to lair up when he’d had so much to deal with that he just needed to get away from everything, even for just a little while. He swarmed up the tree, whose branches were so numerous it was almost like climbing a ladder. He got up to his favorite platform, a place where three limbs crossed each other and made for a really wide spot he could sprawl out on. Today, he just sat with his back to the trunk and his knees drawn up in front of him, brooding.

The day hadn’t gone well. Besides feeling his father’s hand, he’d knocked over a churn full of cream that he was supposed to have been churning to butter for his mother. A lot of the cream had escaped from the churn before he got it picked up again. His mother hadn’t hit him, but the expression on her face as she viewed the mess he’d made and the waste of the cream had made him wish she had. And then he had to make the trip to the tannery.

Things often didn’t go well around Evann. His day-dreaming got him into trouble with some regularity. Any task that required attention to detail or a close measurement of time would usually end in disaster if it was left to Evann. Food burned, sheep strayed, vegetables got thrown out of the garden instead of weeds, cows got stuck in a bog.

Evann was not allowed to pick up most tools, and most particularly was not allowed to swing an ax. Everyone shuddered to think of what could happen if he did. So he found himself relegated to jobs like churning (he did make the best butter in the village—not that anyone except his mother appreciated it), working the bellows in his father’s forge, or pulling back and forth on a two man saw; anything where all he had to do was stand in one place and do repetitive motions.

His brooding deepened, and he tightened his arms around his knees.

Evann was sixteen . . . almost . . . sort of . . . if you called fifteen and a couple of months almost sixteen. And it was past time that he should have been apprenticed to someone and started learning something to do, to be, when he finished growing and was a man. Way past time, actually.

But he wasn’t very good at anything. He’d tried working with the local potter for a time, and only the fact that mistakes in shaping could be smushed down and put back in the clay pit kept him from ruining and wasting much of the potter’s material. He had undoubtedly wasted much of the potter’s time, however, for all that the man had been gentle in telling Evann that he probably needed to find some other kind of work. That hadn’t pleased Edric, and there had been some sharp words between the blacksmith and the potter and a general feeling of prickliness in the village until the matter had died down.

Edric had next tried to place Evann with the tavern keeper. That had worked for a while, until Evann had spoiled a large batch of beer being brewed. That had not only gotten him sent home for good by the tavern keeper, it had gotten him in the bad graces of all of the men of the village, as it had meant there wasn’t enough beer available for a period of time until a replacement batch could be brewed. Even his older brothers had been down on him after that.

The village priest had taken Evann under his wing for a while. That is, up until Evann’s incessant questions had driven the poor man to distraction.

Farming was boring, and the goats, while they liked him in a general manner, wouldn’t stand still under his hands for milking.

And apprenticing to his father? Evann shuddered at that. He loved to watch the flames and heat patterns in the forge, and he really admired his father’s work, taking the metal and shaping it into tools. He thought he could even tell which pieces his father had done were really good, and which would just get the job done. But he wasn’t sure he could learn to do that, and the thought of being under his father’s tutelage . . . he shuddered again.

“Evann,” he heard called from below where he sat. He ignored it. “Evann! I know you’re up there!”

That was Aniosha, his oldest sister. She didn’t always pick on him. Sometimes she actually stood up for him. But sometimes she was a right pain in his side.

“I know you’re up there. Ma’s about got dinner done. If you don’t want your day to be even worse, you’d best be home soon.” He could hear her mutter something about bratty brothers, and then he heard her footsteps moving off.

So what did he want to do? For the first time ever, Evann faced that question directly. And the answer was . . . he didn’t know. He couldn’t continue the way he was going—he knew that. But there was a hollow in his middle as he realized that the village couldn’t give him what he needed.

He wanted to know. That more than anything, Evann decided. Where dragons came from. Who the dwarves and elves really were. What was on the other side of the mountains the village was nestled in front of. Why iron was cold and copper wasn’t.

The more questions he thought of, the more a resolution grew in Evann’s heart.

It was almost nightfall before Evann moved. The growing dusk finally registered with him, and he scrambled down out of the tree and headed for home as quickly as he could.

“Nice you could bother to join us,” Jackonn grumbled as Evann slipped in the door to the house. Everyone else was seated around the table passing the bread to go with the evening’s soup. Evann took his stool at the foot of the table, sitting beside his two sisters, across from his two brothers, and beside his mother who sat at the end.

Edric frowned at his youngest child, but said nothing, for which Evann was thankful.

The mood at the table was quiet. Evann kept his head down, spooned his soup into his mouth as quickly as he could, and chewed on his bread.

Edric finished his own supper, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Evann . . .” That called Evann’s head up. “. . . tomorrow you’ll go to work with Geordy.”

Evann could hardly believe what he was hearing. “The tanner?”

“Aye.” Edric picked at his teeth with a fingernail. “He needs someone to help with the tanning. I told him you would.”

“Da,” Evann swallowed, “the tannery stinks. I don’t want to work there.”

“Don’t matter what you want,” Edric said. “You’ve got to start working somewhere, and there’s no place left in the village for you to work because you’ve been sent home from everyplace else.”

“Da . . .” Evann started pleading.

“Shut it,” Edric said, pointing a strong forefinger at Evann like it was a lance. “You don’t have any other choices. I told him you’d be there tomorrow . . . you’ll be there.”

“Da . . .” Evann was breathless.

“Shut it.” Edric’s face had closed to a glower, and his voice was dark and grim. Evann knew that look, that tone. He hung his head, almost in despair. The tannery reeked. Between the smell of half-raw hides and the odor of old piss, no one who had any choice would even go near the place. And now his father had condemned him to work there for what seemed like the rest of his life. And to Evann, the thought of that, the thought of working in the conditions so long that it became normal, the thought of getting so used to that smell and carrying it with him everywhere he went was beyond horrible.

Evann pushed away from the table and went to the ladder to the loft where he slept. As he climbed, he could hear his mother, “Are you sure about this?”

“Don’t you start, woman,” Evann could hear Edric grumble. He crouched in the loft at the edge of the ladder opening. “What am I supposed to do? Everything else he’s tried, his touch has carried ruin. No one in the village will take him, and even the farmers would only take him for drudge work. That’s the path to ruin and an early grave. Geordy is the only one left, and he’s desperate enough for help that he will overlook a lot. The boy has a chance to make something of himself there.”

“Couldn’t you . . .”

“No, Marisha,” Edric cut her off. “I’d kill the boy in two weeks. For all that he loves the forge and for all that he stares at the metalwork with eyes that see, he doesn’t have the hands for the craft, and he especially doesn’t have the discipline for it. He daydreams too much, and that means someone would be hurt if he was doing the work. It’s not right for him to put him in the forge if he’s not fit for the work, and you know my temper. He’s my son, and he tries me sorely often, but that doesn’t mean I want to see him broken.” There was a moment of silence. “I’ve tried everything else. This is all I know to do now.”

The heavy resignation in his father’s voice put a lump in Evann’s throat. He crawled onto his pallet and curled around the hurt of the day. But at the same time a seed of anger began to grow in him. As the house quieted below him, the seed grew, and sometime in the mid-watch hours of the night it blossomed. He wanted to know things he couldn’t find out here in the village. And he didn’t want to work at the only work that seemed to be open to him here in the village. So maybe the best thing to do was to not be in the village.

That thought, when it arrived, seemed hard and clean and bright in his mind. He looked at it from every angle, and it seemed solid no matter how he approached it. So at length, he rose from his pallet, rolled up his best shirt and trousers in his blanket—he was wearing his second best because his third best had been ruined in a mishap the previous week—and climbed down from the loft as noiselessly as possible.

He threaded his way with some care through the common room, avoiding where his brothers Jackonn and Joshenk slept in their beds built into the end walls, and slipped into the kitchen.

Operating by feel and knowledge of how his mother and sisters stored things, Evann found an old cloth sack, into which he gathered the end of the two-day old loaf of bread, and the last sizable hunk of cheese from the wheel that was hanging from a roof beam. Back in the common room, Evann soft-footed it to the door and opened it, blessing the fact that his father had first made good hinges for the door, and second, had oiled them recently, so that it opened with the barest whisper of a sound that would not disturb his sleeping brothers.

Once the door was closed, he moved to the end of the row of boots standing against the wall of the little porch and pulled his on. His boots weren’t best or second-best—weren’t any kind of best, actually, being third-hand hand-downs from his brothers. He put them on, stopping himself from stamping his feet into them just in time to keep the thumps from being heard inside.

He stopped as he stepped off the porch, plucked a wildflower growing beside the house, and placed it in Aniosha’s shoe. Of everyone he was leaving, as frustrating as she could be, he would miss her the most.

Evann knew his father’s forge and store room were definitely secured, so he couldn’t get anything for his traveling there. He headed instead for the little storage shed that stood on the back edge of their hen yard and garden. It was latched as well, but he knew the secret way to bypass that latch. He’d figured out his father’s tricky design one rainy day when he’d hidden in the shed to get away from another time where things had not gone well. He was good enough at it now that he was barely slowed down by the latch.

Once inside the shed, he paused for a long moment, letting his eyes adjust to the lower level of light. Enough of the light from the nearly full moon filtered through the open door so that before long he could see the dim outlines of various tools and supplies his mother and sisters used in the garden.

Evann reached first of all for the top shelf. He reached behind a box that held some nails and fumbled until he pulled an old knife down. He pulled it out of the cracked leather sheath, and held it in the moonlight. It was old . . . the thinness of the blade gave witness to how many times it had been sharpened. Evann was drawn to it more than many of the other tools that his father had made; there was something about it, something that spoke to him of fire and patterns. He slid it back into the sheath and fastened it to his belt.

He looked around the shed. He hadn’t thought to get anything but the knife, but now that he was here, Evann remembered something his father had said once: “Never go anywhere without a bit of rope.” There was a coil of rope hanging from a peg beside the doorway, so he reached over and pulled that off and draped it over one shoulder. And there on a lower shelf was a flat shallow pan not much bigger than his hand spanned out that had developed a small hole in the bottom. His mother had relegated it to the shed until such time as a tinker or whitesmith came through Chesserlin. That got added to his sack.

Evann started to turn and shut the door, but an errant beam of moonlight seemed to touch on something hanging on the back wall. He walked over and took it down and brought it into the light. It was a spade. And now that he saw it, he remembered it. His father had made it a couple of years ago. The metal of the blade was a bit mottled, and the farmer he’d made it for said it looked fey and wouldn’t buy it. Edric had Joshenk make the farmer another spade, but instead of melting this one down to be reused in some other tool, Evann’s father had instead put it in the family shed. When asked why, he just pursed his lips and shook his head.

Evann didn’t have a real reason to take a spade with him. On the other hand, it might be useful to have something like that along. And it just felt right in his hand. So he reached over and picked up some looped twine from a lower shelf, tied his sack of food and his blanket roll to the spade, then stepped out of the shed and closed the door, making sure the latch reset. He slung the loaded spade across the other shoulder, picked out a direction and strode off in the moonlight.