The Dragon’s Boy

Evann leaves his village in search of answers to the many questions he has, and finds a friend and partner in his quest: Rufous the dragon.

Soon, the pair are embroiled in dragon politics and wizardly duels. Evann still hasn’t got answers to most of his questions, but he does know one thing for sure. A boy needs his dragon, and a dragon needs his boy.

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Growing up in a small village, Evann is curious about everything, and drives everybody crazy with his endless questions. Eventually, he runs off, seeking answers wherever they might be found.

The first place he finds some of them is when he encounters the dragon Rufous, who is almost as curious as he is. One of the things he discovers is rather appalling—dragons can breathe fire, but only after they’ve consumed human blood. Fortunately, Rufous is not inclined in that direction.

As their friendship deepens, they find trouble together in the form of another dragon, Rufous’ enemy Moriach. At the Dragon Conclave where a new ruler of the dragons is to be selected, Moriach’s fire-breathing prowess makes him the leading candidate. But after Evann lets Rufous drink some of his blood, his dragon emerges from the contest as the winner and new Solon.

Moriach’s resentment leads him to ally with an evil wizard. So Evann and Rufous still have a fight on their hands—and one that will require the boy to develop magic powers to match those of the wizard. Which he thinks he can do, because he’s not just any boy. He’s the dragon’s boy.

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.

That first night Evann had reached the edge of the territory that he knew around the village at about the same time that the moon was low enough in the sky that he lost its light on his path. For all that he was young, Evann knew enough about traveling and moving through wilderness and forest areas to know that he shouldn’t be moving if he couldn’t see where he could put his feet, so he decided to stop and wait for dawn.

Evann was still somewhat on edge, so sleep wasn’t going to happen. He knew that from other days when things had left his mind roiled. There was a fairly large outcropping of stone near where he was standing, so he moved over and settled down with his back against it. The night air was a bit cool, but it was late summer so it was warm enough that he didn’t bother unwrapping his blanket. He did eventually doze a bit, head leaning back against the rock, but when the birds started chirping at the pre-dawn light, he was up and on his feet and moving.

For the next day Evann pushed his pace, wanting to get as far from the village as he could so that none would track him. He had chosen to head toward the downs which bordered Chesserlin to the southeast on the other side of a sizable belt of forest.

The sun was well descended toward the west when Evann reached the edge of the forest. He stared out toward the downs. They appeared grey in the approaching dusk, with wisps of fog already beginning to appear here and there among them.

“Umm,” Evann said under his breath. The downs had a bit of a reputation among his village of being at least weird and fey, although no one had ever been able to tell him why. The worst of the old stories indicated that they were dangerous for unwary travelers. “Right,” he decided. “I’ll stop here for the night, and face them in the daylight.” He wasn’t sure if that made him prudent or a coward, but either way he wasn’t going out there with night falling. Besides, his feet and legs hurt. He hadn’t been for a daylong walk since he could remember when.

It didn’t take long for Evann to make his camp. He picked a spot under a large oak tree at the very edge of the forest, swept a space clear of twigs and leaves, and spread his blanket. It was after gathering some of those twigs and leaves for a fire that he discovered he’d made a major mistake in preparing for his travels.

“Stupid!” Evann raged at himself. “Idiot!” He kicked at a root of the oak tree, and the resulting pain in his foot caused him to resort to the worst insult of all. “Corfen! They’re right to call you that, every one of them! You really are an empty-head! How could you leave without a fire-starter?”

Evann’s hands were jammed into his pockets, balled in fists, kept there to keep from hitting out at the oak tree and with his luck breaking one or more fingers on the hard bark of the great tree. It took some time for Evann to discharge his anger by calling himself names, but he finally managed it, ending with a deep sigh which involved heaving his shoulders up and down.

He looked around, and his gaze settled on the spade where it leaned against the trunk of the oak. “At least I have the steel with you,” he said, mouth quirking. “And lots of it. Too bad I can’t just put you in the tinder and start the fire. Ah, well, maybe tomorrow I can find a stone or a flint that will strike sparks.” Almost in response, it seemed, he thought for a moment that he saw a slight glint of blue from the edge of the spade. After a moment, he shook his head, and turned to look back out at the downs. “Surely I’ll be able to find a flint out there somewhere tomorrow.”

Another shrug, another sigh, and he picked up his pan and his food sack to backtrack to the small stream that he had crossed just before arriving at this point. He needed water while he ate some of the bread and cheese, and after the day’s walk he definitely needed to eat. A handful of berries he’d found along the way hadn’t done much to fill his belly. The bread was dry and stale around the edges, and the cheese wasn’t a whole lot better, but it was what he had.

Dusk had settled and full dark wasn’t far behind it when Evann returned to his fireless camp. He hung his food sack from a low branch of the oak, rolled up in his blanket between two major roots of the tree, and pillowed his head on his arm. “Hope tomorrow is better than today,” he murmured drowsily. Before long, his breathing deepened as he fell asleep.

The dark deepened as well under the great oak, where, even when the moon rode high in the sky, little to no light penetrated. Even so, a great owl who settled on a nearby branch to consume a fresh caught field mouse swiveled his head to note a bit of blue light playing along the edge of the spade. He took his kill elsewhere. The light swirled for a moment, then faded away.

✽✽✽

Evann rose to wakefulness slowly, with the smell of something delicious teasing his nose. The closer he got to waking, the more the odor perplexed him, until the thought finally penetrated his drowsy brain that he hadn’t had a fire last night, therefore there shouldn’t be anything cooking.

At that note, Evann’s eyes snapped open and he sat straight up, his blanket falling off his shoulders to pool around his waist. There in the cleared area where he had intended to build a fire last night, there was indeed a small fire, over which was suspended the naked carcass of a rabbit, source of the aroma that had been teasing him.

But Evann’s wide eyes were fixed on the man who was seated cross-legged on the ground on the other side of the fire, poking at it with a stick. He was thin, not slender—almost gaunt, actually. His face and hands were heavily tanned, and looked like old leather. The seams on his face and wrinkles on the backs of his hands made it clear that he wasn’t a young man, or even one of middle years.

“Cordhe?” Evann finally breathed the man’s name. He was the best hunter in Chesserlin. Evann didn’t know much about him, other than he was a hunter and was a frequent companion of Enwulf Pigsong. “What are you doing here?”

The man looked up from the fire with a twisted smile. “Tracking you, mostly.”

“I’m not going back!” Evann threw off the blanket and lunged to his feet, hands fisted at his sides.

“Didn’t say I came to take you back.” The older man was looking into the fire again.

That thought set Evann back. “What . . . if you’re not here to drag me back to Chesserlin in disgrace, what are you here for?”

“Mostly ’cause Captain Enwulf sent me after you to see if you was all right. He didn’t say nothing about bringing you back.” Cordhe shrugged. “You look all right to me, so I got no reason to do any such thing.”

“I wouldn’t let you, anyway,” Evann said, setting his hands on his hips.

The smile on Cordhe’s face changed to a scowl, and he directed a hard-eyed glare at Evann. “Boy, if I was of a mind to take you back, you’d be half-way there by now, and there wouldn’t be nothing you could do about it. So don’t talk stupid.” After a moment, he added, “And pick up your blanket. You look silly with it wrapped around your feet.”

Evann blushed as Cordhe went back to tending the fire and the rabbit suspended over it. He reached down and grabbed the blanket, shook it a bit, then rolled it up and tossed it to land next to where the spade was leaning against the tree. After that, he put his hands on his hips again and tried to glare at Cordhe. After a moment, though, he decided that his glare was a pretty weak thing compared to the one that the older man had sent his way, so he stomped his way off to the stream to get a drink and wash the sleep from his face.

He was still shaking cold drops from his hands when he came back to the fire, to find Cordhe gnawing on part of the rabbit. The older man held up a stick with the rest of the rabbit impaled on it. “Want some?” he said around the mouthful he had just taken.

Evann reached out quickly and took it, tearing a piece of the hot flesh off the remnant of the carcass with his teeth and sucking it into his mouth, almost scorching his lips and tongue. That bite tasted really good, and Evann had the rest of the meat gnawed off the bones and the stick in a hurry. When he was done, Evann looked around for what to do with the bones in his hand, and when he saw Cordhe toss his own bones in the fire, he did likewise.

“Sit, boy,” Cordhe grunted, pointing to the ground on the other side of the fire opposite him. Evann did so, wiping his hands on the dirt to try and get the remaining grease off. “So what are you trying to do?”

“I’m tired of everyone making fun of me, and I don’t want to work in the tannery,” Evann said in hot tones.

“About what the Captain expected. Can’t say as I blame you for either of those,” Cordhe said with that twisted smile coming back to his face. “But that’s what you don’t want to be or do. What do you want to do?”

Evann opened his mouth, and stopped. He wasn’t sure how to answer that question. In fact, he wasn’t sure he knew how to answer that question. “I want to know,” he finally said.

“You want to be a scholar, boy? Is that what you’re saying?”

“What’s a scholar?”

“You don’t know much, do you boy?”

Evann felt himself getting angry again. “How can I know anything, when nobody would answer my questions? All they did was try to show me how to do what they did, and when I couldn’t do it, they called me stupid. Is it my fault they couldn’t teach me? Is it my fault I couldn’t learn from them?” The instant after Evann finished that last sentence, he wished he hadn’t said it, because the answer to it was probably “Yes.”

“Hmm. You might have the makings of a scholar at that,” Cordhe said. His grin grew a little broader. “Sure got the attitude for it.”

“What’s a scholar?” Evann repeated.

“Someone who claims to know something about everything,” the older man replied, his grin becoming even larger.

Evann thought about that. “I don’t know if I want to be one, but I’d like to talk to one.”

Cordhe shrugged. “If you’re serious about leaving, you just might do that very thing if you make it to the larger cities.”

Evann shook his head. “I’m serious about leaving, but cities aren’t what I want . . . I don’t think.”

“Do you know what you want?”

“To get away from the tannery, to get out from under my father’s hand, and to find something that I can do that I like.”

Cordhe snorted. “Not asking much. So what’s your plan?”

“Plan?” That question confused Evann.

“Plan. If that’s what you want to do, how are you going to do it? How are you going to get there?”

Evann’s heart sank a bit. “I don’t know. But why do you care? I’m not your son, and you’ve already said you’re not going to drag me back. So what is in it for you?”

Cordhe shrugged again. “Nothing, really, except that Captain Enwulf asked me to make sure you were okay.”

“Why do you keep calling him Captain? He’s older than my Da, I’ve known him all my life, and I never heard of him being a captain anywhere.”

“Aye, well, we’ve already established that you don’t know everything there is to know, now haven’t we?” Cordhe’s grin turned wicked for a moment as Evann sputtered. He relented, though, and continued with, “You do know that he left the village for several years?”

“Yes.” Evann nodded. “And he came back with money, and never told anyone how he got it. There are some stories, but they all sound crazy to me.”

Cordhe grimaced. “I’ve heard some of those tales, and crazy is right. They’re all spun out of too much ale and too much moonlight. But what do you think?”

“Da always assumed it was through some sharp dealing as a trader. He says no one puts anything over on Enwulf. Me, I was thinking that he might have been a soldier or something.”

“Huh,” Cordhe said. “Between the two of you, you and your Da come pretty close to the truth. Captain signed on as a caravan guard when he was young, and turned out to have the knack for it. Within five years, he was captaining guards for some of the biggest merchants around, and did it for enough years to make a nice stash. He made good money, sure, but he earned every crown of it. Even after the word got out that it was sure death to attack one of his caravans, there were always fools out there who thought they were smarter or tougher or meaner.” He gave an evil chuckle. “They never were, of course. Captain was as hard as they come, and no one ever took a caravan from him, nor even a single wagon.”

Evann felt his eyes widen as he absorbed this information about a man he’d had always seen as a soft-spoken village elder. “Really?” Then his brow furrowed. “Wait a moment . . . how do you know all this?”

“I was one of his guards, wasn’t I?” Cordhe’s grin grew even wider.

“You were? Really?”

Cordhe nodded soberly. “For true and certain, boy, for true and certain. I was his lead scout and rider for the whole time he was captaining. We met up not too long after he got started. Could tell he was going to be something special, I could, so I hitched myself to his tack and followed him wherever he went. Pretty near the smartest thing I ever did. Made a few crowns myself, following him. Course, I saved his caravans a time or three, and once saved his arse, by seeing what was out there before he could roll into a trap.”

“So when he came back to Chesserlin, you came with him?”

“Right enough, boy. I had had about enough of the guarding business. It was getting to be pretty tame, especially since none of the brigands that were left would even sniff at our tracks, much less try to take us. So when the Captain said he was calling it done and going back home, I just naturally tagged along with him. Been good, too. Chesserlin’s a good place. I get to watch over folks like always, and get to do a bit of hunting now and again, just to keep my hand in. Do stuff for the Captain, now and again.” He smiled again. “Like now.”

“So why does Master Enwulf care about me?” Evann was pretty confused about that question himself.

Cordhe shrugged. “The Captain, he don’t act like he’s top hand, or nothing like that. But he does take an interest of what’s happening in the village, and he’s been a mite concerned about you.”

“Me?” Evann rocked back in surprise. “Why?”

“Captain’s always had an eye for folks who are a bit odd . . . or like me, more than a bit odd. Don’t know why . . . if it was something he had before he left Chesserlin, or if it was something he picked up in the early days of his caravan work, before I met up with him.”

“What do you mean, odd?” Evann interrupted. “I’m not odd. I’m normal. I’m just a village kid like all the other village kids.”

Cordhe’s grin reappeared, this time with a sly edge to it. “Uh-huh. You keep telling yourself that. Maybe one day you’ll really believe it.”

Evann thought back to all the times he’d messed things up by daydreaming, or driven everyone around him to distraction with his questions. He didn’t say anything, but Cordhe’s smile changed to be just good humor.

The older man nodded. “You see it. You know it. It’s hard to be different. I was different growing up. Had trouble talking. Never did learn to read. The letters wouldn’t stay still for me like they did for others, and none of the teachers knew what to do. I ended up doing some dirty jobs until I finally got my growth in and went for a soldier.”

“Is that what I should be?” Evann asked. “A soldier, or a guard someplace? They don’t even like me using a knife, they won’t let me use an ax, I can’t believe anyone would let me use a sword.” He shuddered at that image himself.

Cordhe shook his head. “You’ve not got the growth on you yet to do that. Even when you get your man-growth, it won’t mean you’d be good with arms. It’s a skill to be learned, truth, but the best also have a gift or talent for it. Can’t say you will, can’t say you won’t.”

“But I could?” Evann asked.

Cordhe shrugged. “I got it, and I was an odd clumsy duck as a younger, so yes, I’d say you could.”

Evann sat back. That kind of sounded good, but at the same time, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a soldier. He’d seen a few at one time or another, because if a wandering soldier, guard, or armsman was going to stop in Chesserlin, his most likely first stop would be at Edric’s forge, because it was certain that something had broken or been damaged. The ones he’d seen had all looked hard and worn, and were at best brusque with the villagers, including his father, while at worst they were rough and abusive.

But on the other hand, Evann didn’t have any other ideas, except to look for someone who could answer his questions. Maybe that scholar thing. Maybe.

“But whether you go for a soldier or for something else, you need a plan. How are you going to find out what you want, and how are you going to get it?”

“I don’t know,” Evann said. He could feel the frown on his face. “I’m not going back . . .”

“I understand that,” Cordhe said.

“But I can’t just stay here either.”

“Now that might be the first smart thing you’ve said today. If you mean out in the wilds by ‘here’,” Cordhe said, “you could, if you wanted to live by yourself and live very rough.” After a long moment, he added, “Not recommended, that. Everyone I’ve ever known who really tried to do that went crazy.”

Evann thought again about the scholar thing. “What I want is to find someone who can answer my questions, and help me figure out what I can do. Nobody around here seems to be able to do that,” he said bitterly, “but surely there’s someone out there who can.”

“Kind of general, that, as plans go,” Cordhe said with a bit of a smile turning up one corner of his mouth. “Might well work, though, especially if you head for a city. Most likely to find scholars, wizards, and masters of all sorts there rather than in villages.”

Scholars? Wizards? Evann hadn’t thought about wizards. “You mean there really are wizards still around? They’re not just in the old stories?”

Cordhe chuckled. “Indeed they are. Met two or three of them my own self, and the Captain knows more than that.”

Evann made his mind up. “Then I’ll go to a city, and search out these scholars and wizards. Surely one of them can help me.”

That drew a nod from the older man. “That’s a plan. Bit thin at the moment, but it’s got the bones of a plan. You can put flesh on it as you travel more and learn more.”

Evann felt a rush of pleasure at Cordhe’s approval. It dawned on him that he’d not had much of that in recent years. It felt good. Then something else dawned on him He looked over at Cordhe with a bit of panic on his face.

“Umm, how far are we from a city?”

Cordhe’s sly grin appeared again. That did not help Evann’s confidence. “Depends on which direction you go. Closest one, though, would be Morshton. It’s a couple of months’ walk that way,” and he gestured off to the southeast.

“That’s . . . that’s over the downs,” Evann ventured.

“And then some,” Cordhe replied with a sharp nod.

“You wouldn’t be able to . . . take me there, would you?” Evann hated the hint of whine that had crept into his voice.

“Could,” the older man said, “but nah. Captain didn’t send me to be your nanny. I’m supposed to make sure you’re all right, then report back to him. He expects to hear from me in a few days. He’d have words for me if I disappeared for four or five months, he would.”

“Oh.” Evann was crestfallen at that. He could see the other man’s point, though. “Well, can you at least point me in the right direction?”

“Do more than that,” Cordhe said. “I’ll spend a little time with you to send you on your way and make sure you know what you need to survive. Captain said I was to make sure you was all right, didn’t he? Can’t walk away from you without knowing you know how to make do in the wilds.”

“Umm, thank you.” Evann was both surprised and delighted to hear that. He pushed aside the rankle that started to raise up at the suggestion he couldn’t take care of himself. He couldn’t, he admitted in a moment of cold truth—at least, not as well as Cordhe could—and he’d be stupid not to learn everything he could from the retired scout.

That moment marked a shift in Evann’s thinking, although he wouldn’t realize it for some time.

“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.

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