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Chapter 2

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.

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