The Dragon’s Boy: Chapter Three

“First question is, why did you have a cold camp last night?” Cordhe wasted no time in getting into the middle of what he saw as his responsibility—making sure Evann could ‘make do’, as he put it.

Evann lowered his eyes as he admitted, “I forgot to bring a fire starter.”

“Hmmph.” The corners of Cordhe’s mouth turned down, and Evann felt embarrassed—a not uncommon sensation for him, and one he’d left Chesserlin with the hopes of not feeling again. That hope had been swiftly disappointed. “Well, show me what you did bring, then.”

Evann clambered back to his feet, picked up his blanket and spread it out, then picked up his gear and laid it out piece by piece: the small pan with the small hole in it, the old small knife, the small ball of twine, the coil of rope, and finally, the spade.

“Hmm,” Cordhe said. “Nice bit of rope, good that you brought the twine, although you didn’t bring enough. Pan’s good enough. Remind me to show you how to deal with the hole until you run across a tinker or a whitesmith. Knife, now . . . not much of a knife. Do anything harder than peel and slice a few roots or apples with that, that thin blade will snap, and you won’t have anything. Not good. No fire kit. Not good. Spade now,” he picked it up and looked it over carefully, “well made, solid. Not so good as an ax would be, but could be useful, and you won’t cut your foot off with it. Can’t hurt, might be of help. Nothing else, can strike sparks off of it when you find a flint.”

“Do you have a flint?” Evann asked with hope.

“Not one to give you. Just my own, and I’ll be keeping that.” The older man nodded, then added, “I expect we’ll find one when we start through the downs. Probably more than one.”

“Through the downs?” That brought the previous evening’s apprehensions back to Evann’s min, and he swallowed. “Do we have to?”

“You want to get to Morshton, boy, then yes. It’s still two months’ walk, and a good part of the first month will be through the downs.”

“Can we go around?”

“Not no we involved here, boy. Told you that. You can go around, if you want to spend more like four months walking instead of two.” Cordhe shook his head. “Up to you, but I wouldn’t do it, for sure and sure.”

“But what about . . .” Evann stopped, not sure how to ask his question without sounding foolish. Cordhe looked at him with raised eyebrows. “The stories . . .” Evann tried again.

“Stories,” the older man said with a snort. “Forget the stories. You thinking about all the fey and magic and eldritch things that are supposed to be in the downs.” He snorted again. “No one from Chesserlin has been farther into the downs than the skirts of it but me. Those stories are all the results of too much bad ale and feast night sour stomachs if you ask me. Been through the downs from south to north and west to east, and never saw any of that.” He shook his head. “Foolishness, the lot of it.” There was a long pause, then he said, “Mind you, I did see some dragon sign, once.”

Evann popped back to his feet. “Dragon sign? For real and true dragons? They’re not just in the old stories?”

Cordhe chuckled. “Boy, there’s more truth in those old stories than most folks want to admit. Elves, dwarves, goblins, and yes, dragons really exist. I’ve seen elves on their horses once or twice, talked to dwarves in taverns over mugs of beer enough to know some of them by name, even saw what looked like a dragon flying across the moon one night. Haven’t seen a goblin my own self, but I’ve talked to those I trust who say they have seen them, even fought them. So while the old stories may sound crazy, there is truth to them.”

“But . . . dragons . . . really?”

“Yes, really.” Cordhe made a patting motion with his hand. “Calm yourself, boy. I saw a few claw marks on some rock years ago. Doesn’t mean they will show themselves to you. You’ll need to be keeping a sharp eye out for the path you need to take, not looking around for weirds out of the old stories.”

“But . . . dragons . . .” Evann was astounded by that thought.

Cordhe frowned. “Enough of that talk, boy. You’d do better to learn how to set a snare. Bring that twine and come with me.”

And that was all he would say. Evann found himself being tutored in the almost-art of setting a snare for rabbits. “That’s what you ate just a few moments ago,” he was reminded. “You stop anywhere where there is underbrush, you can usually find a path to set a snare. Come evening or morning, usually something there to feed yourself with. You won’t get fat that way, but you won’t starve, neither. Some bit of fruit or roots with it, pretty good eating.”

There were other lessons over the next couple of days. Proper fire building, for example. “Always use deadfalls. Don’t be cutting green wood for fire—partly because it smokes and doesn’t make a good fire, and partly because there might be those around who might object to it that you’d do better not to meet.” And despite Evann’s protestations, he’d say nothing more than that.

The morning of the third day, Evann was excited to find that one of his own snares had actually caught a rabbit. Cordhe took one look at the plump little carcass and at the old worn knife that Evann was about to use in attempting to skin it, and sighed. “No, boy, put that poor excuse of a blade away. Here.” He reached down to pull a knife in its sheath out of his right boot and held it out to Evann. “Use this.”

It took a few moments for Evann to catch on to the best way to skin the rabbit, but before long he had legs and haunches and breasts skewered and roasting over the fire. He then took the knife down to the creek to rinse the blood off of it. He was careful to dry the blade off with his shirt tail before he put it back in its sheath and offered it back to Cordhe.

“Keep it, boy. You’re going to need it.”

Evann started to argue about that, but one look at the grim expression on the old man’s face shut the argument down before it left his lips. “Thanks,” he finally responded in a limp tone.

“Start packing up,” Cordhe said. “Once you’re done eating, we’re going to get started on the trail.”

And at that thought, all thought of anything other than the downs pretty much left Evann’s head. Mixed expectations and apprehensions danced through his head all the time he tended the fire. For all that, he managed to cook the rabbit without scorching more than one piece. He was proud of that.

“That spade’s going to be good for one thing,” Cordhe said as he tossed the last bone in the fire. “Get in the habit, boy, to bury everything when you’re done: skins, unless it’s a prime pelt and you know where to trade it, offal, bones, the ashes from your fire, even your latrine hole. Bury it all.”

“Why?” That didn’t make much sense to Evann.

“Partly to leave things clean behind you. Don’t want to be a waster, boy. That will bring trouble down on your head sooner or later. But partly because if someone’s tracking you, leaving stuff like that lying around just pretty much marks your trail for them. You might just as well put up signposts saying ‘Idiot Boy Went This Way’. Honestly.”

“But no one is tracking me,” Evann protested.

“You don’t know that, boy. I was tracking you, wasn’t I? There might be anyone, some of them on two feet and some of them on four, trying to hunt you down. Don’t make it easy on them.”

Evann wasn’t sure he wanted to believe the old man, but the expression on Cordhe’s face, the way the lines engraved there by time lined up in an intimidating mask, left him feeling that he’d better not argue about that. And the fact that Cordhe had caught up to him, and quickly, kind of left him without an argument anyway. So he just nodded, got up and grabbed the spade, and started the cleanup. Cordhe didn’t say anything, just gave him a nod of his own in return.

It wasn’t long before that was all done. Evann said nothing, just rolled his belongings into his blanket, tied the roll to the spade, and retraced his steps to the edge of the forest where he had stood a few days before. He stood there looking at the beginnings of the downs, the rolling hills that seemed to climb before him until they faded away against the grey bulk of the Grimshank Mountains where they stood in a rampart far to the north.

There was a whisper of a sound, and Evann looked over to see Cordhe standing beside him. “Some sight, eh?” the older man said. There was a bit of a smile on his face as he gazed ahead. “That’s the path to Morshton, right enough.” He looked over at Evann. “Last chance to change your mind, boy.”

Evann shook his head. “No, that last chance happened days ago. I’m moving on.”

Cordhe chuckled. “Right. Well, best be about it, then.” And he stepped out from under the trees and began walking toward the downs.

Evann hurried to catch up to the scout, then fell in beside him and matched him step for step. On the way, he thought. That made him a bit excited, a bit nervous, and a whole lot challenged, all at the same time. On the way. He settled that in his mind.

✽✽✽

The first day traversing the downs was spent without much conversation. Cordhe didn’t seem to be walking all that fast, at least at first, but it wasn’t long before Evann found himself being stretched to keep up with the older man. He was short of breath most of the day, and he was grateful for the occasional pauses where the scout would show him something about the lay of the land, or about the grass, or about the occasional copse of trees.

The first time that it happened, Evann was thankful for the break so that he could catch his breath, but it also dawned on him that Cordhe was answering questions Evann hadn’t even thought about asking. He wasn’t used to that, but he made every effort to listen and absorb whatever Cordhe had to say. After all, that was why he had left Chesserlin to begin with, wasn’t it?

By the end of that first day of travel, Evann was exhausted. He ate very little of the food that they had gathered during the day, rolled up in his blanket, and fell asleep before it was even full dark.

Evann awoke to Cordhe’s foot nudging his shoulder. “Time to be up, boy. Sun’s coming up, and you don’t have time to waste.”

They shared the food they had left from the night before, which included the last of the very dried-out and crusty bread. The evening’s fire had burned out before the dawn, so there was nothing to bury there but ash. It didn’t take long before their camp was clean, with very little to indicate that the two of them had been there.

The second day was a repeat of the first. Cordhe led the way, Evann struggled to keep up. This day was different, though, in that instead of pointing things out and talking about them, Cordhe would point them out and ask Evann questions about them. It didn’t take him long to figure out the scout was testing him to see what he had learned from the day before. He rose to that challenge. And so the day passed.

About mid-afternoon, Cordhe’s testing began to slow as he started looking around the vale they were in. “Where is it . . .” he finally muttered. Just as Evann was about to ask him what he was looking for, his head snapped around to focus on a knob of rock sticking up near the beginning of the rise of a slope. “This way, boy.”

A few moments later Evann was standing by a small pool of water, not even large enough to call a pond. It was clear, and it chilled his fingers when he reached to cup some of the water for a drink.

Cordhe did likewise, then shook drops from his hand and wiped it on the front of his coat. He looked up when Evann spoke.

“Are we making good time?”

“Well, by the standards of a caravan, yes.” Cordhe’s mouth quirked. “But they’re slow, remember. By the standards of a scout who needs to move across a lot of land . . .” He shook his head.

“Feels fast to me,” Evann muttered.

Cordhe chuckled. “For a boy from a village in the middle of the wilds who never had to work at this traveling, you’re not too bad. After a few more days to toughen up your legs, you’ll be moving faster.”

Evann shook his head. He moved on to his next question. “How long will you stay with me?”

“I think one more day,” Cordhe said. “There’s one thing I want to show you, so you’ll know about it, then I’ll probably head back to the village and report to the captain.”

“He’s not going to be mad for you taking this much time to get back?”

“Nah. Captain, he knows what he told me to do, which was to make sure you were all right. Wasn’t told to report back right away or bring you back, and he knows that. He said it that way on a purpose, so seems to me he’s not going to be surprised if it takes me a few days to make sure of you.” He straightened and looked to the north, shading his eyes, then looked back down at Evann and grinned. “‘Sides, I’ll be moving faster on my own, so it won’t take me as long going back as it did for us to get here.”

Evann couldn’t say anything about that. It was undoubtedly true. But it did irk him a bit that Cordhe could do that. He trailed along as the scout walked over to the man-high knob that jutted up from the vale floor. Cordhe touched the knob, and peered at it closely. “Mm-hmm,” he said, and started looking around the base of the knob, using the toe of his boot to move around the detritus piled up at the base of it. “Aha!” he said after a few moments, and bent over to pick up something. When he stood, he flicked something toward Evann, who barely got his hands up in time to catch it.

“Ow!” Whatever it was stung Evann’s hands sharply, and he looked down to realize that he was holding a sharp-edged rock. “What’s this for?”

“That’s a flint,” Cordhe said. “With that and your spade or knife, you’ve now got a fire-starter. Here’s another.” He pitched it a little more gently, and Evann managed to catch it without dropping the first one. “Keep them in separate pockets or bundles, and that way if you lose one you’ll still have the other.”

That made sense, so Evann did exactly that, tucking one into a pocket and the other into his blanket roll.

“Let’s get moving,” Cordhe said. “We’ve got enough time to get into the next vale before dark, and unless my memory fails me, there’s a few trees to help provide a bit of shelter for the night.”

Evann didn’t say anything—just sighed, picked up his bundle, and followed after the scout.

✽✽✽

It was the middle of the next day when Cordhe pulled to a halt at the top of a ridge that they had just climbed. He scanned below them. “That’s what I thought,” he said in a very self-satisfied tone of voice.

Evann looked around. He didn’t see anything noteworthy. “What?” he said.

“Pay attention, boy,” the scout said. He lifted his right hand and pointed slightly to the northeast. “You see how there’s just a bit of a crease in the ground between those two ridges?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Looks like it fades away and pinches out between them don’t it?”

Evann looked, and sure enough, that’s what it looked like. “Yes.”

Cordhe pointed to the northwest, almost to the west. “And you see how that vale looks broad and looks like it will carry on for a fair ways?”

“Yes.”

“They both be lying to you, boy. That one,” the scout pointed to the westward vale, “goes a piece and then ends in a pocket surrounded by cliffs. No easy way out. T’other one,” pointing back to the northern line, “that goes for the best part of a mile, then opens up again into a wider vale and keeps going south.” He dropped his arms and turned to face Evann. “Always remember you want to head south. This isn’t the only place where the downs can look deceptive. Always take the path that goes most to the south. Always. It matters not how rough or small it looks, if it’s close to due south, it’s the right path. Right?”

“Right,” Evann said with a firm nod. “South. Understood.”

“Good,” Cordhe said. “Now, keep moving. We’ve got a ways to go before we reach a good campsite tonight.”

And with that, he led the way down the slope toward the vale below them.