By Nathan Elwood
The blade sang through the cold air, seeming to slice it in two along its deadly path. But it did not meet its expected target. Cordelia danced lightly away, a feral grin on her face. Quickly, she scooped down, pulling up a clump of ice and snow, and sent it hurtling into the face of her attacker, through the front opening of his iron helmet.
Furiously he roared, and swung his blade blindly toward the sound of tinkling laughter. His sword again failing to find its mark, he wiped the ice from his face. His vision clear, he whirled about. The girl was gone. All was silent save for his labored breathing. In the trees above him, Cordelia slipped one of her arrows from her hip quiver, and knocked it into place.
Again the man whirled about, searching for the laughing child. Conveniently, this put his back to Cordelia. Seeing her opportunity, she let fly her first arrow. She had cut the arrow herself; the long, thin wooden shaft tapered out at the end into a blunt head, designed to stun small game, rather than pierce its hide.
The arrow connected with the back of the man’s helmet with a clang. He staggered, and almost immediately another arrow slammed against the side of his helm. Standing on the branch above, Cordelia moved, running and leaping at the dazed, armored figure below.
She landed feet first against his back, carrying the both of them with impressive force to slam against the ground. Rolling away, Cordelia righted herself, knocked another arrow, and took aim at the prone form of the armored man. He lay still.
She kept her arrow at the ready, slowly moving closer to the body, prepared should his stillness prove to be a ruse. Closer to the man however, she relaxed. His breathing was short and light, and his eyes closed. He would be unconscious for a short while longer, and very confused upon waking. Cordelia did not envy him the headache he would have, but reserved very little pity for him. He had tried to kill her, after all.
She had left camp early that morning to scout this new territory before her Uncle’s men pushed further into it. The snow and forests of these mountains reminded them of home, but Cordelia knew well the terrors that such a place could hide. She had seen too much in her short years to equate nostalgia with a sense of security. What’s more, she was hungry, and had grown tired of the hard bread and watery soup of the camp, and had hoped to gather a bit of meat and snow potatoes to add into the brew for their meal that day.
She had come upon the armored man about an hour past daybreak, just as she was about to turn back toward camp. The way he trudged across the ground, she had known about his presence nearly a half mile distant. Concealing herself against the snow with her white cloak, she waited for his approach. Soon enough he emerged from the trees, stomping on his way only a few yards away from her. He was a large man, wearing mostly furs, but with scattered bits of armor; an iron helm, a single gauntlet on his right hand. A sword he had as well, hanging in a scabbard on his left hip. Cordelia’s initial thought was that he may be a bandit, as groups of them were rumored to traverse these hills. But he wore no identifying colors or markings, and seemed to be alone. He stopped a short distance away and pulled out a map, looking all about him, then back to the map.
Perhaps, she considered, he was a trader travelling to one of the towns that dotted these mountains, like her Uncle and his men. Perhaps he had been separated from his people, and was hopelessly lost in the snow-covered forest. Her heart went out to the man, and removing herself from under the cloak, she called out to him, hailing him as a friend.
It was then that the man had put away his map, and drawn his sword.
Cordelia looked now at his unconscious body. He was mostly unarmored, and she aimed a kick into his unprotected stomach. The breath went out of him in a quick burst, but he did not rise. His breathing resumed, quick and shallow. She reached down and pulled the rolled map he had consulted from his belt, sticking it in her hip quiver. Cordelia stepped away, in the direction the man had originally come from, her bow again drawn, prepared in case the man should have companions following close by.
Then, behind her, she heard the sound of someone running through the snow. She turned about, nearly releasing her arrow. Seeing the source of the noise, she sighed and relaxed her arms. Racing toward her was a blonde-haired boy of her own age wearing dark orange, the color of her village. She shook her head. Eran…
“Cordelia!” he shouted. “Cordelia! Thank Perun I’ve found you!” Looking straight ahead and toward her, he did not even notice the unconscious man on the ground until he was nearly upon him. Eran’s eyes went wide, and his attempt to stop all of a sudden tripped him and sent him sprawling through the air. Over the body he flew, skidding into the snow and coming to rest with his face full in the white powder.
His head popped up, covered in snow and spitting. Quickly he scrambled back to his feet, wiping the snow from his now-red face as best he could. He looked back at the man, then toward Cordelia. Then back to the man. He rushed up to Cordelia.
“Cordelia… Who… who is that?”
She smiled. “We didn’t exchange pleasantries, I’m afraid. Unless of course his name is ‘Die witch, die,’ and swinging a sword about is the traditional greeting of his people.” Eran stared at her as she put her bow across her shoulder and pulled out the man’s map, unravelling it to examine its contents.
Finally, Eran remembered his mission. “Cordelia,” he said, “we have to return to the camp. The Chief is furious at you for leaving without telling him.” Cordelia did not bother looking up from the map. “My Uncle is almost always furious about one thing or another, Eran,” she replied.
“He says he’ll leave you behind, that they’ll break camp and let you fend for yourself out here. He really means it this time!”
Cordelia smiled. “Just as he always meant it when he said he’d leave me out in the snow to freeze if I didn’t make it back to the village before dark? Eight winters he’s been making these threats, Eran.” Eight winters it had been, since Cordelia had first come to the village of Porwen. Only five winters herself at the time, she was the only survivor of her own village after it was exterminated by bandits. The day after her arrival the same bandits had charged out of the forest as if chased by demons themselves. The prepared men of Porwen had been able to slay them easily, and those that lived to return to the forest were never seen again. How Cordelia had managed to survive however was still a matter of conjecture amongst the people of Porwen; she had never spoken about what had occurred in the days before she wandered out of the forest and into the town, not even to her Uncle, the town’s chief authority. She had spoken little at all, in her first days, and many of the children had feared or shunned her. All save for Eran, who had followed her about from the first day of her arrival, no matter how often she had tried to dissuade him. Eight winters later, she counted him as her closest, and perhaps only, friend. All the same, he could still be a massive nuisance.
“Cordelia!” he stamped his foot. “This is an expedition, and I am ordering you to return with me to camp. Preferably before that man wakes up and murders us both.”
Now she looked up from the map. Calmly, she rolled it back up and placed it in her quiver. She looked Eran dead in the eyes. “You order me?”
He stammered. “That’s not . . . what I meant to say was . . . Listen . . . .” She interrupted him with a loud crack of her knuckles. It was a skill she’d discovered early on that frightened the other children. Naturally, she had cultivated it since then.
She turned away and marched off into the forest, further in the direction away from camp. Eran stood, dumbfounded for what to do. He looked back at the fallen man, and jumped when he groaned and shifted in his sleep. Off like a bolt Eran went, scampering to catch up to Cordelia.
When they had finally left the unconscious man behind, Eran spoke again, this time very careful not raise Cordelia’s ire. “Listen, I’m sorry about before. But your Uncle told me to find you and bring you back to camp before they move onward.”
“Eran, it’s only just now daybreak, and you know how those old men can be in the cold. We have another two hours at least before they break camp, if my Uncle can even rouse them all before mid-day. We’ll be back with time to spare.”
“But we’ll miss breakfast for certain!” Eran spoke of this as if it was a certain sentence of execution. “And we’ll be even later to the next village. I wanted to trade for a book this time, Cordelia.”
“You’ve already read all the books.”
“All the books in our village. There are others I’ve never even seen before! Entire merchant carts of books! Rooms of books! Your Uncle has told me so himself.”
Cordelia stopped and turned back to her friend. “Now what I don’t understand is, why would you want even more dusty old books when there is real treasure to be found?” She raised an eyebrow, pulled out the map, and handed it to him.
He unfolded it with a dubious expression. Cordelia was disappointed when it did not go away after he perused the page. “It’s a map,” he announced finally. Cordelia snatched it away and returned it to her quiver, resuming her march.
“Clearly it’s a treasure map,” she called back to him. “And if I’m reading it right, our newfound fortune will be just over this hill!”
Her pace quickened, and Eran followed suit. They were nearly running by the time they crested the hill, but they stopped suddenly at its peak. There, at the bottom, was a dark, wide-mouthed cave.
“We’re rich,” Eran said, nodding gravely. “Surely with this great treasure, we shall live as kings.”
He cringed at the crack of Cordelia’s knuckles. “They wouldn’t just leave it out in the open,” she said. “It’s in the cave, obviously.” She began to make her way down the hill, but was stopped Eran’s call. “Wait!” he cried. He shook his head. “To think you tell me what’s ‘obvious.’ Pick any book, Cordelia. If there’s a cave with treasure in it, then there’s going to be a dragon as well. We should turn back before we become breakfast. Better yet, we should turn back before we entirely miss breakfast ourselves.”
Cordelia kept onward. However, she did move a bit slower, and stepped lightly. She didn’t fear monsters like dragons; she had honestly found some monsters to be far more hospitable than most humans. Nevertheless, it had never hurt her before to be cautious.
“Stay here,” she told Eran. “I’ll go investigate. If there is a dragon, we’ll leave, I promise.” Dutifully, Eran nodded and remained where he was. His obedience was short lived however, and soon after Cordelia had crept away he began to fidget and pace.
At the mouth of the cave, largely protected from the snow, the permanent frost of the mountain had melted, leaving the ground saturated and forming a shallow pool of cold mud. It sucked and pulled at Cordelia’s boots, but she stepped lightly and paid it little mind. She was aware however of the strange warmth emanating from the cave’s entrance.
Quietly, she stole into the cave. The cave, from what she could tell in the dim light, didn’t appear to be the lair of any dragon. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, great boulders littered the ground. More mud, all throughout. Then she noticed the slight glimmer in the back of the cave, and almost gasped with joy. There, at the very back, was what looked to be a corpse, armor plated and gripping a fabulous sword. She took a step forward.
One of the boulders stirred.
Cordelia’s bow was in hand and an arrow nearly knocked before she took hold of herself and froze. The boulder was still moving, but it was a slight motion, the up and down of breathing. She allowed her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the cave.
She realized now that what she had taken to be a boulder was in fact a large, wooly rhinoceros, sleeping soundly in the mud. Its enormous flanks rose and fell with its breath, which she now recognized as the source of the heat and dampness of the place. Though the rhino faced away from her she could still make out the shape of his great horn, rising up toward the roof of the cave. To her great fortune, the beast’s momentary stirring had been no more than that, and it did not rise.
She considered leaving the cave and returning to Eran. But, she reasoned, she had only promised to do so if the cave was inhabited by a dragon. A wooly rhino may be one of the most dangerous animals to lumber across the earth, but it was certainly not a dragon.
Slowly, lightly, she made her way past the sleeping giant.
A rhinoceros, in order to accommodate for its weak eyes, has an excellent sense of hearing, even in its sleep. Few were those who could sneak by without rousing the beast. Even grown warriors and hunters trained in woodcraft and stealth may have laid one too-heavy foot into a splash of mud, and thereby sealed their fate.
But Cordelia’s natural skill in the hunt was aided by her youth and small size, and she practically glided through the cave, noiseless specter in her white cloak. At the back of the cave she examined the corpse and its treasures.
He had clearly been a large man, and a warrior. His burnished armor caught what little light entered the cave and shined despite the muck. His right leg was twisted at an odd angle, the bone broken. Looking about him she saw signs that this cave had once been an oft-used camp; scattered evidence of dozens of small fires, come and gone. Cordelia found it likely that the man, hurt and fearing death, had come back to this place to weather the cold.
She wondered about this man, and the one she had met in the snow. How did they know each other, she pondered? What had truly happened in this cave?
These were questions though, she decided, that could not be answered by idle ponderings, and simple as that, she pushed them from her mind. Deciding that she could scarcely carry his armor, let alone loose it without alerting the rhino, she took hold of his sword. It was nearly as tall as she was herself, and weighed nearly half as much besides.
Again she made her way past the rhinoceros, making her way with double caution, should the extra weight of the sword prove to sway her step. When she finally reached the cave entrance, she allowed herself once again the extreme luxury of breathing.
Her relief was short lived. She heard Eran cry out a warning. Squinting against the sudden light reflected off the snow, she raised the sword in a defensive position. A few yards away stood the man she’d left unconscious in the snow, Eran held fast in his grip, his sword raised in his other hand.
“Cordelia, run!” Eran shouted. The man dropped Eran and cuffed him across the head, knocking him to the ground.
“Give me the sword, girl,” the man growled. He raised his sword in the air. “Do it or I’ll cut him in half!”
Cordelia did not hesitate. With all her might she heaved the sword, up and through the air, passing right above the man’s head. He turned to follow it.
“Eran, GO!” she cried. In one fluid motion she removed her bow, knocked an arrow, and fired. Straight back into the cave.
Then she ran toward the forest. Eran scrambled behind her.
The man lifted the sword and turned back around to give chase. Then the ground began to shake. Eyes wide, he turned back toward the cave. From its mouth burst the enormous shape of a furious wooly rhinoceros, a tiny arrow shaft sticking out of its flank.
The man swore, and raised his sword.
Cordelia and Eran raced through the forest. Behind them came the sounds of a titanic struggle, but they did not slow until they had left the clamor far behind.
They had travelled almost all the way back to the camp by the time they slowed, sweating and panting despite the mountain cold. They paused for a moment before proceeding on, reconstituting themselves after the harrowing flight.
“Well,” Cordelia gasped, smiling. “There was no dragon.” Eran aimed a tremendous frown her way, and stalked off silently toward the camp. Cordelia followed, unsure what to say.
It was nearly mid-day when they entered the borders of the camp. The site had been broken down, the twelve men who travelled together ambled about, waiting to be off. One of them caught sight of the children and called out to the Chief.
The Chief broke from his task of brushing the party’s solitary horse and marched over to them, glowering as he came. He was a titanic man with thick grey hair and beard, grey since the day he became village Chief at only twenty-three years. The look on his face was one that had cowed full grown hunters and fighting men, leaving them quiet and shame-faced before his wrath. It was a look Cordelia had come to know well in the last thirteen years. It was not one she had ever become used to . . . .
“Where in Volos’ great bushy beard have you been?” he roared. “A whole morning we’ve lost to your foolishness, and all this time I stand here, worrying about what I must say to the village women when I tell them bandits or bears have carried off their precious children. Precious? Bah! Eran, I sent you to find Cordelia hours ago, boy!”
Eran seemed to shrink into the snow. “I,” he said. “I didn’t—”
“Out with it!”
“It wasn’t his fault!” Cordelia chimed in. The Chief glared at his niece. As if I didn’t already know, his face seemed to say. “What then,” he asked, “happened this morning?”
Cordelia opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Eran. “Well, it wasn’t entirely my fault, she means. It was her white cloak. I had her trail, but I must have walked right past her. We ended up going in circles all morning, looking for each other.” Cordelia stared at Eran, then looked back to the Chief, nodding furiously in agreement. “All morning,” she said. “In circles.”
The Chief glowered even more terribly than ever, searching the faces of the two children. “I don’t believe a word of it,” he announced. “And I don’t particularly care. We have half a day to make up because of you, now double time, pack your things and get moving.” He marched back away toward his horse, leaving deep impressions in the snow.
Eran exhaled deeply. He hadn’t taken another breath since he’d finished his lie. Cordelia looked at him, wondering. “Why did you do that?” she asked.
He grinned at her. “Well, I’m still angry, but I suppose you did save my life today, even if it was you that put it into danger in the first place. And I supposed it would only make the Chief even angrier with us to hear we’d nearly been eaten by a rhinoceros and that there’s likely a band of savage killers tracking us right now.”
Cordelia pondered this. “Thank you,” she said finally.
“Don’t thank me yet. He will of course read about all of this one day, when I put it all down in my book. I will have to make some changes, of course.”
“Obviously. I mean, what kind of hero loses the sword she took from a dragon’s cave? In the real version I’ll have to figure out a way for you to be less careless.”
Cordelia smiled at Eran warmly. Then she swept a leg behind his and pushed him down into the snow, turning away to join the rest of the camp in their work. Eran pulled himself up, red in the face, and followed along behind.
“Nathan Elwood is a student of Library Science at the University of Missouri. He has been previously featured in several publications and hopes to develop the adventures of Cordelia into an ongoing book series. His interests include writing and craft beers, and he has an unfortunate habit of combining the two interests.”