Cordelia heaved a bucket. The handle of twisted rope dug into her palm, and water sloshed onto her feet as she walked toward the cottage, her body askew to balance the weight. A cold gust ruffled her hair, summer's last gasp and the advent of autumn. Her brothers' backs rose and fell with the rhythm of their scythes, cutting grass for winter fodder in the fallow field. Behind the cottage the heath blossomed with swaths of purple and yellow, clusters of wild flowers thriving amidst the heather grass. She found joy on the moor, years ago, braiding her hair with wildflowers until a hanging garden tumbled down her back. Life spread before her as sweet and thick as honey in those days, the time before a fever took her father in the darkest days of winter, and as Cordelia pushed open the cottage door, she reasoned that winter had never thawed.
"What are you crying about, child," asked her mother.
"The wind blew some dust in my eyes."
"Crying about your father again? You certainly enjoyed him while he was here, all snuggled up on his lap before the fire, listening to his dragon stories. You'd think I'd died in childbirth the way he doted on you. He never made you work to earn your keep the way I do."
"Stop it, mother."
"I see how it is. I warned him what a shrew you'd become." Her mother reached beneath the table. "The peat's running low and the boys are busy. Take this and dig some." Her mother held out a battered shovel with a broken handle. Orange rust covered the blade and the once sharp point curved inward. The remaining handle, less than half the original, ended in a crown of jagged points, a staff of thorns.
Cordelia imagined herself kneeling over the peat, dragging the dull blade across the sinewy soil. Her doe eyes pleaded with her mother's stony countenance. "This won't cut anything."
"Your brothers need the good tools for working the fields." Cordelia's mother cocked her head and grinned. "Your father once used this shovel. That should make you happy. Now be quick. I need more peat to cook supper."
Cordelia trudged the path to the heath, carrying the broken shovel and a satchel. The fragments of her shattered spirit littered the path behind her. For hours she assaulted the peat with her dull weapon. The wildflowers mocked her, swaying and dipping their decorated heads in the breeze that swept unimpeded across the level ground. Joy died first at the hand of drudgery. Cordelia lowered her head into the wind to shield her eyes and struck the earth with angry vigor.
A chain of low hills edged the heath, and near the path Cordelia walked, an outcrop protruded from the grassy plain, rising gently before dropping abruptly eight feet to the ground. Amidst the rubble at the outcrop's foot, an elf named Lufielne watched Cordelia labor. Years ago he had seen her gathering flowers and marveled at her beauty, mistaking her for a nymph, and when he discovered she was mortal, he had fallen in love. Here was a free spirit, someone who understood joy. He ventured from the forest each day to admire her. He feared she would flee if an elf approached her and concocted all manner of schemes to force a chance meeting. Then her wanderings ceased and for three seasons he feared the worst, coming to the heath to quell his sadness with memories. Now she returned but not as the former Cordelia, the butterfly flitting from one beauty to another, but as the downtrodden Cordelia, battling the earth for scraps of fuel. His compassion boiled.
He checked his desire to dash across the heather to her aid. Cordelia's folk mistrusted elves. The fair ghosts of the woods, they called them, the magical forest dwellers who lurked unseen in the woodland shadows. Those whose loved ones disappeared among the trees cursed the elves, the devils of the forest. The elves returned the enmity, scorning those who wielded axes and fire to clear the trees. The elvish elders would not look kindly on Cordelia.
Lufielne lay still as death among the rocks, listening to Cordelia trudge past on her way to the cottage. Something must be done. He would not allow her to suffer such cruel work another day. As he slunk along the edge of the hills toward the forest, he debated digging the peat himself, but such a plan required venturing onto the heath in sight of the fields where the men worked. No, Cordelia must cut the peat.
From a hollow in the floor beneath his bed, Lufielne retrieved an item wrapped in oiled cloth, a knife forged long ago on his great-grandfather's anvil in a fire of molten rock from the earth's heart, a magical knife that sliced the hardest wood and the softest fabric with equal ease. A ruby embedded in steel adorned the pommel that capped a handle wrapped with leather cords. A string of runes stretched along the sharp edge. Was it a crime to give something of such power to a human? The elders taught that anything in need deserved his compassion, and she would only borrow it, just long enough to cut the peat.
Cordelia approached the outcrop the next morning, singing a mournful dirge. A hand shot out from the rocks, a glimmering knife between its thumb and fingers. Cordelia stopped. The fleshy hand protruded from what appeared to be an extension of the rocks, the same layers of dull beige and yellow, the same gritty surface. She stepped back, sensing magic, thinking to run home. She thought better of it because her mother would not believe her, and if her brothers did not see it, her mother would thrash her with the broom handle.
"Hello?" Cordelia asked.
The hand shook the knife, tilting the pommel toward her.
Her father's stories abounded with such offerings, gifts with a price for which the witless paid dearly. Cordelia sidestepped the knife, her gaze fixed on the hand lest it launch its weapon and catch her unawares. The handle moved with her, tilted toward her, as if it watched her like a snake following its quarry, the red jewel in the pommel acting the eyes and tongue together. Only a fool would bargain with a snake. Cordelia turned her back and scurried onto the heath.
The next day, Cordelia approached the outcrop with a mixture of fear and hope, fear that the snake would coil and strike, hope that it would come again. Hours of gouging and scratching with the broken shovel had eroded her resistance to a gift of unknown provenance. The knife appeared as on the previous day. Cordelia stepped around the stone-like projection with its living hand, like a gargoyle whose tongue has assumed flesh and wags it with impish glee. On impulse, for parts of her reason still doubted the gift's charity, she snatched the knife, gripping its leather bound handle as she dashed onto the heath.
She thrust the blade into the soil, slicing through the peat without resistance, as the sharp prow of a longboat cuts water. The blade flashed hot, warming the handle. The ruby pulsed red. Wisps of smoke and steam escaped from the earth wherever the knife traveled. When she withdrew the blade, she found it dry and without the least smudge of dirt or a single blade of grass stuck to its surface. She marveled at the strange letters etched along the blade, wondering what power they would unleash if spoken. What the day before required hours, took minutes, and her arms, back, and shoulders did not pain her. How would she ever thank her benefactor who surely must be an elf to possess something so magical.
As she passed the outcrop, the hand sprang from the rocks, its fingers open. Cordelia understood at once that the gift was not the knife but something far more valuable, freedom from her labor. She returned the knife and whispered thank you as the long fingers grasped the handle. She bounded toward the cottage, skipping along the path, oblivious to the heavy peat in her satchel, imagining the expression of bewilderment that would contort her mother's sour countenance.
Cordelia burst through the door. Her mother sat at the table, drinking tea and eating sweet biscuits. "I'm finished, mother." At the woman's feet, Cordelia dropped the satchel and shovel then departed as quickly as she had entered.
For three days the routine with the proffered knife repeated. Cordelia returned to her haunts on the heath and appeared at supper with a wild-flower garland draped about her neck.
The next morning, while Cordelia milked the cow and fetched the eggs, the mother gathered her sons to relate her suspicions. "Someone is helping your sister cut the peat. It's not fair to the rest of us."
The younger brothers, Andig and Endir, nodded in agreement, but Aulden, the eldest of the siblings, scowled and clenched his fists.
"And she's keeping her good fortune a secret," continued the mother. "I want you to work close to the house today and when she leaves, follow her."
The brothers watched Cordelia take the knife. The hand's sudden appearance and retraction unnerved Andig and Endir, who surmised that their sister had learned black magic and feared what she might do to them.
"A witch?" Aulden chided them. "That half-wit?" Aulden scratched the stubble on his chin. "That treasonous slut is in league with an elf."
"We better tell mother," said Endir.
Aulden shook his head. "I've got a plan."
They followed a wide arc to avoid the elf's hiding place and accosted their sister on her return with the peat.
"That's quite a knife you've got there, sis," said Aulden.
"What knife?" Cordelia tucked it among the billowing folds of her skirt, shifting her eyes between her brothers and the outcrop.
The brothers laughed, and while the younger pair held her to the ground and muffled her cries, Aulden wrung the knife from her hand. He examined the runes then tested the blade against a strip of leather that gave way without resistance.
"It's not yours," she said.
"I'm afraid it is, sis. I'm going to say hello to your elf friend. Keep her quiet." Aulden swaggered toward the low hills that marked the trail head.
Cordelia cried out, but the wind carried her warning in the opposite direction and a hand, thick and muscular from farm labor, muffled any further cries. When the elf's hand appeared, Aulden raised the knife and swung it down, a flash of silvery light. The knife sliced through the elf's wrist, severing bone and cauterizing flesh. The elf's deep cry swept across the heath, a cry of betrayal that no wind could divert, the cry of a soul stabbed to the quick. The scream stung Cordelia's ears, ringing on and on as tears welled from her eyes.
Cordelia toyed with her stew, pushing a chunk of carrot through ranks of sliced potatoes. Aulden's new weapon stood buried to the hilt in the oak table. Cordelia flinched whenever she caught sight of the ruby which flared red in the candle light, reminding her of the dead hand, its wrist all crimson, laying on the path like some discarded glove.
"We must sell it," said her mother. "Nothing good comes from magic."
"Have you lost your wits, woman? Have you ever seen such a tool?" Aulden eyed his siblings. "Or weapon." Aulden stood and leaned across the table toward his mother. "Who could pay us enough?"
"There's elvish evil in that knife," said her mother. "Any price would be worth the taking."
"You're scared," answered Aulden. "Old and scared. I'm not afraid of it, so I'll keep it. No one else need ever touch it."
"That's no good, Aulden. It'll poison us all," her mother pleaded. "Take it to the king's alchemist. They'll pay you a year's worth of crops for it."
"How would you know? They'll take it and hang me for a thief."
"Bury it. Hide it on the moor."
Aulden kicked his chair against the wall, snapping one of its legs, and slammed his fists on the table, upsetting his ale and sending wooden spoons clattering to the floor. "The knife stays," he hissed.
Cordelia looked to her mother. The woman averted her eyes. She shook her head as she rose from the table and retreated to her bedroom. When she closed the door, Cordelia and her brothers looked to Aulden.
Aulden sheathed the knife inside his belt. "Don't one of you touch this, you hear. Or I'll do to you what I did to that elf." He glared at each in turn then smirked triumphantly.
Andig slammed his fist on the table. "You can't tell us what to do."
Fury wrinkled Aulden's features into a snarling mask, and as he leaned across the table, his siblings bent in unison under the weight of shared fear like three saplings under a woodsman's boot. "This knife is mine." He grinned. "Any one want to fight me for it? Andig? Endir? Elf-lover?" Andig and Endir stared at the table. Aulden and Cordelia locked eyes, sizing each other up while the herd cleared away. Aulden blinked. "I didn't think so." He slammed the cottage door behind him.
"This is your fault, Cordelia," said Andig. "If you hadn't been cavorting with elves. Couldn't you just do your chores?"
"Yeah," said Endir. "Elf-lover."
Cordelia fled the cottage. A dark figure, a mere shadow in the moonlight, walked the path to the heath. Aulden, she guessed. She hid in the darkness around the corner of the cottage, where she could watch the path unseen, her knees pressed to her chest. She wondered about his purpose. Her brother didn't go for idle walks. He returned moments later, swinging something. Cordelia gasped. He carried the elf's hand.
From that day, Aulden ruled the farm as his fiefdom, finding fault wherever it pleased him, demanding meat stews and sweet desserts. At anyone who contradicted, he waved the knife, his scepter and henchman. His tenuous claim to absolute power flooded his mind with suspicion. He moved his bed to the attic where he slept alone—save for the mice who scurried to and from the kitchen and the spiders who built webs between the beams. Beneath his pillow, he secreted the knife.
The elf's severed hand Aulden mounted above the mantle with a nail through its palm. Cordelia winced, remembering her brother's treachery whenever she caught sight of the curled fingers which lost their white luster as the days passed, fading to dull gray, withering to brittle twigs. The mother performed her duties in silence, as docile as an ox. Whatever mirth had animated the household desiccated under Aulden's tyranny.
A month later, Cordelia wrapped herself in her mother's hooded cloak and put a loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese in a basket. No longer could she look at the elf's hand without knowing his fate. She tiptoed to the door, wincing at every creak, and closed the door between herself and her tormentors. She followed the path to the heath then veered to pursue an unfamiliar trail that skirted the moor, following the low hills toward the forest. In the darkness she struggled along the trail, strewn with small boulders across uneven ground. She smiled, imagining the ruckus Aulden would raise when he found that no one had cooked his porridge.
At daybreak she stopped to admire the sunrise and found the great forest in sight, an amorphous, deep green mass with rounded edges against the hazy blue horizon, like battlements on a castle wall, a fortress under siege. Each year a new ring of stumps, all that remained of fallen comrades, encircled the forest anew in some profane reversal of growth rings. Cordelia tore a handful of bread and broke off some cheese, not realizing the sharpness of her hunger until the cheese awakened her senses. She ate quickly then lay in a bed of tall grass on the hillside, letting the sun warm her face. Strange images troubled her sleep: her brother's faces twisted with anger, her mother's hand poised to strike, an elf raising his arm, pointing at her with his bloodied stump. Cordelia startled awake. Return to her wicked family or venture the forbidding forest, a choice between devils confronted her. Her mother would tie a leash around her waist, and as for Aulden, his wrath knew no bounds. She knew of at least one kind elf, and slavery under the elves frightened her far less than Aulden's furies. Cordelia strode toward the woods.
She passed through a field of stumps in various stages of decay, like stones in a graveyard, passing from the oldest, now home to mushrooms, to the youngest, who clung to the smell of their sap. Seed bearing grass waved above the shorn trunks. Wild flowers had taken root in the open spaces. She stopped at the edge of the woods. The upper branches knitted together with their neighbors, a continuous canopy of leaves quaking in the breeze like so many shimmering emeralds. Darkness gripped the forest's lower reaches. A natural archway between two adjacent trees suggested an entrance. In her father's tales, a host of ogres and witches hid among the trees. "Keep your wits," she told herself. The elf must have come this way. A real ogre lived in the attic.
The forest reverberated with birds chirping, the knocks of woodpeckers, and at her feet the rustle of ground squirrels. Oaks dominated here, their lobed leaves growing thickly from myriad branches. Shafts of greenish light penetrated the canopy to give sustenance to the saplings, ivy, and ferns that shared the floor with the lichen encrusted trunks of fallen giants. Cordelia paused for her eyes to adjust. Far away, a snort and squeal like that of a pig startled her. Helshogs, a species of giant boar, also roamed the forest. Cordelia realized she had not an inkling of where the elves lived. The ground at her feet was less thickly covered, and peering into the gloom, she surmised the outline of a path. She followed it.
The trail wound over logs and across muddy creek beds. She pressed onward until a low growl, like that of an angry dog, stopped her. A beast the color of coal with a wolf-like face and gait but the size of an ox approached her through the undergrowth. It growled as its yellow eyes probed her as a pack tests a herd of deer. Cordelia stood still and silent, dumbstruck with fear and an instinctual sense that flight would hasten her demise. It stopped six feet from her and reared onto its hind legs.
Hair grew long and thick on its head; the pointed ears disappeared; the snout flattened into an elongated human face with black sideburns and a beard. The front legs grew to arms and hands with long fingers tipped with pointed, yellow fingernails. The back legs followed the transformation of the body and before her shock had dissipated, Cordelia gaped at a man wearing a leather tunic and leggings.
The shape shifter looked down on her with his yellow eyes. "What are you doing here, little girl?"
"I'm." She paused. "I'm just walking."
He moved a step closer. "You're no elf and I've never seen you. Your kind don't go walking in the woods. You've a purpose." He sniffed the air then flicked his long, thin tongue over his jutting canine teeth. "What's in the basket?"
Cordelia stepped back, sweat spreading across her face, her heart thumping so loud that she was certain he could hear it. The words spilled out of her in a torrent. "Just some bread and cheese. I'm looking for an elf. Can you tell me where to find the elves? I'm very sorry to trouble you."
The creature grinned as it took another step forward. "No trouble. What's your name, little girl?"
Cordelia shuffled backwards, stumbling against a sapling. "Cordelia. And yours?"
"Lupus. I guard the woods."
"The forest is fortunate to have one so formidable as its protector."
Lupus growled and gnashed his teeth. "There is only one of me but many with axes."
"I'll do no harm."
"I know. Your pure heart precedes you. If not, I would have tasted your heart by now. But hearts don't always remain pure, so perhaps we'll meet again."
Cordelia strove to stifle her shuddering. "You must know the forest well."
"Every tree is a brother."
"Then you must know where I can find the elves."
"And I feel the pain," growled Lupus, thumping his chest, "in here with every tree that's murdered. Frothy saliva dripped from his lips. "Have you known such pain?"
Cordelia recalled her father's sickbed and the quilts that moved no more. "Yes, yes I have."
Lupus eyes glowed a brighter yellow. "Why do you seek the elves?"
"An elf suffered wrongly on my account."
Lupus snorted. "Follow the path until you reach a gorge then upstream to a natural bridge. There's a path on the opposite side of the gorge."
"Thank you, Master Lupus."
"They'll know you're coming, and they don't fancy guests."
Cordelia hurried without running. She glanced back to find him kneeling on the ground. When she looked again, he was Lupus the wolf. The path turned, winding through a stand of young pines. A mournful howl swept through the wood, going on and on until it stopped abruptly. Cordelia remarked the silence, broken only by her footfalls, which now seemed more alien than the howl.
She found the gorge, nearly stumbling into it, for trees and undergrowth clung to life at its very edge. A clear, fast moving stream wound through the canyon. Moving upstream, she threaded her way through the forest, keeping the gorge's edge in sight.
A grunt startled her. She looked over her shoulder into the black eyes of a male helshog. The beast stood four feet tall at the shoulders. White tusks protruded from its lower jaw and curled backwards. Gray hairs stood on its back like spikes. The helshog grunted again and bared its teeth before lowering its head.
Cordelia ran, dodging through the trees. The helshog crashed through the undergrowth in pursuit. When he closed in and she heard him taking great gasps of air, she threw down her basket. The helshog stopped to rummage and tore the basket apart. She chanced a tree with a low fork and did not stop climbing until she was nestled in its crown.
The helshog bellowed, rising on its hind legs to beat the tree with its front hooves, but if Cordelia knew one thing about pigs, she knew they could not climb trees. The beast resigned itself to waiting, pacing round the tree, grunting and glaring at her.
Cordelia had chosen a walnut with its ripening fruit weighing down the branches. She picked a nut, still wrapped in its green husk, and threw it, hitting the helshog between the shoulders. The animal squealed, then lowered its snout to smell the nut. It crushed the shell and ate. She threw another and another until the ground at the helshog's feet became green with husks. The beast lost interest in everything but walnuts, and after eating its fill, lay down to sleep. Cordelia descended, stopping frequently to listen to the helshog's snoring.
As the afternoon faded, she found the natural bridge, a narrow arch of rock, little more than the width of her shoulders. She inched her way across.
"What's your purpose?"
She scanned the forest, but the voice came from everywhere and nowhere and echoed in the gorge. "I'm seeking an elf."
She waited and wobbled, holding out her arms for balance. Far below, the water flowed over dark rocks.
As she stepped off the bridge, three elves emerged from the trees. Two carried bows with arrows nocked. The third rested his hand on a sword in its scabbard.
"Who told you about the bridge?" asked the elf with the sword.
"A creature called Lupus. I mean no harm."
The elf looked to the others who both shrugged.
The elf explained that she must be blindfolded. He covered her eyes with black fabric, demanding absolute trust of strangers who could walk her off a cliff as easily as lead her to safety. One of the elves grasped her upper arm. They walked in silence over level ground, up a steep incline, and across three streams. All the while Cordelia wondered what purpose they would have for a captive if all the tales were true. Would they sacrifice her in a fire or hang her from a tree? They entered a place where she heard much whispering from many voices, then they climbed a long staircase which turned ever to the right and creaked like the wooden ladder to the attic in her cottage. The elf led her across a wooden floor then released her.
Someone whisked the blindfold from her eyes. She winced from the onslaught of light like so many needles. She stood in an oval room built from rough timbers. Balls of light like miniature suns mounted on sconces pulsated yellow and orange. Branches protruded from the floor through the ceiling. A massive trunk, two times the span of Cordelia's outstretched arms, dominated the room's center, and in front of the tree rested a wooden chair with inlaid jewels of red, black, and green decorating its arms and legs. An old elven man sat in the chair, wrapped in an emerald-colored robe edged with gold. Gray hair draped over his shoulders and a thin white beard hung down to his chest. A banquet table occupied the room's opposite end. Aside from the elf with the sword who stood three paces to her right, she and the old man appeared to be alone.
"I am Cander, the swift." He chuckled. "I am no longer as swift a foot, but my mind has acquired what my tired legs have lost. I have seen more than I will see. I daresay you, young child, have not seen as much as you will see. Do not trifle with me. Now, unfold yourself."
"I am Cordelia," she said haltingly. "An elf favored me with a knife. It was magical. To ease my work. But my brother took it and repaid the elf with treachery. I want to know if the elf survived his injuries."
"A great deal you have risked to learn very little," said Cander.
"My life on the farm is far from pleasant. My brother has changed for the worse."
Cander nodded. "That is not surprising. I was told you spoke with Lupus."
"He told me about the gorge and the bridge."
"Very few speak with Lupus, and far fewer live to tell of it."
"I believe he liked me."
Cander chuckled. "Lupus does not 'like' people as you say, nor elves for that matter, but he knows what motivates you. If Lupus trusts you then I believe it is worth the risk to trust you a little as well." Cander wrinkled his brows. "Do you trust me?"
"I've been taught not to, but the elf gave me the knife for nothing. I guess you would have done away with me by now if you wanted."
"You are not as foolish as I expected." Cander nodded. "The elf you seek is called Lufielne, and I wish for all our sakes he had a smidgen of your sense. Alas, he does not. Yes, he survived. His actions were not wise, but like you, he has seen very few seasons, and the poor boy is besotted with you. Lufielne."
A young elf with curly black hair and dark eyes emerged from behind the massive trunk. As he approached Cordelia, he dared a smile, which she returned. Her gaze fell to his arms. She startled at his withered left hand, a claw with the thumb and fingers acting as pincers. He tucked it behind his back.
"It's been restored, somewhat," said Lufielne. "Without the original.... Magic has its limitations."
"If you had your hand now?" asked Cordelia.
"Too much time has passed," said Lufielne.
"You see," said Cander, "we are not the all-powerful wizards your people imagine us to be."
"I didn't bring the knife. It was my intention but Aulden guards it every moment."
Lufielne stood within arms reach of Cordelia. "I have longed for nothing more than to see you again. I knew you wouldn't injure me, but I've been prevented from...."
"With good reason," interrupted the elf with the sword.
"Agreed," said Cander.
"You had no right to give the knife."
"It belonged to me and me alone, Renweard." As Lufielne looked to Cordelia, he smiled. "What is done is done."
"How do you speak so of a gift from your ancestors?" said Renweard. "That gift was yours to protect, not to toss at the first wench you fancied. Who has it now? He's already used it against us."
"Please, please," said Cander, pounding his fist on the arm of his chair. "We have heard all this before." Turning to Cordelia, the old man's eyes narrowed and she sensed the fire still burning in his soul. "What Renweard says is true. We must recover it."
"The girl may be useful," said Renweard. "Send her back. She can lead me and a fist of warriors to her brother."
"And you will bring her back with the knife?" asked Lufielne.
"Of course not," said Renweard.
"They'll kill her as a traitor," cried Lufielne.
Renweard stiffened. "You brought this to pass, Lufielne. Her blood will be on your head."
"Silence," said Cander. "Cordelia, tell us about your brother."
She related the story of Aulden's treachery, his lust for dominance. Cander listened with closed eyes, deathly still, save for the three fingers he drummed against his forehead. He remained so for many breaths after she completed her narrative. She looked askance at Lufielne, who put a finger to his lips.
"Renweard," said Cander, "you are bold but your foray will be called a raid and this poor girl will suffer the wrath of it. And if, as Lufielne insists, we carry her here, she will be a captive. The War of a Thousand Fires began for far less. Lufielne and the girl must retrieve the knife by stealth, but the girl must not return."
Renweard and Lufielne shouted their protests but Cander silenced them with a wave of his hand. "Lufielne must restore the balance that his foolishness has shattered."
They feasted in the oval room. Lufielne sat beside Cordelia and touched her hand beneath the table whenever he whispered in her ear. Cander plagued her with questions about events beyond the forest. She passed another day and night in the elvish kingdom, blindfolded when taken from place to place. She and Lufielne planned their foray to recapture the knife and Lufielne asked for a sleeping potion to sprinkle over Aulden.
As the sun rose, Cordelia and Lufielne departed—she blindfolded until she heard the water rushing deep in the gorge. Renweard wished them luck and again warned Lufielne that the girl could not return. The pair crossed the natural bridge for what they hoped to be the last time.
"The Elf-lover has run to her friend," said Aulden, "insulting us." He paced before the hearth, below the withered hand, squeezing the knife's handle in his fist. The mother, Andig, and Endir sat at the table. "I want her back."
"Why?" said Andig. "She'll be lost in the forest."
"You'll have to find her. You and Endir get ready to leave."
"No," cried the mother. "Leave her, Aulden. No one comes back from the forest."
Aulden drove the knife through the oaken table. Wispy smoke curled around his fist, rising from the gash in the wood. "They can take the best axes."
Lufielne led Cordelia on a short-cut, a path worn from many trips to admire her ramblings amid the flowers. They did not hurry, for they planned to reach the farm after sundown and secure the knife like a thief in the night. Cordelia no longer shuddered when she chanced a glimpse of his claw, which he actively concealed among the folds of his cloak. She saw it as a part of him, a relic of their shared story, a scar of his kindness and sacrifice. His presence swelled her confidence. A snapping twig or a rustle in the leaf litter or a faraway grunt no longer frightened her. They talked much as they traveled and Cordelia's desire to stay forever with Lufielne grew to match his for her.
Lufielne stopped, eyes fixed on something in the undergrowth.
"What is it, Lufielne?"
"Stay back," he said.
Cordelia rushed to his side. Among the dark green ferns lay a torso, torn from its hips. What remained of the entrails spilled out. Something had gnawed off the right arm below the shoulder. Desiccated flesh shrank from the jagged edge of the broken bone. Flies crawled and hovered.
"Lupus did this," said Lufielne. He reached down with his deformed hand to move a frond hiding the battered face.
"Andig," said Cordelia. She spun away to wretch.
Lufielne covered Andig with a mound of branches and dried leaves. Cordelia sat on the ground with her head pressed between her knees to quiet her lurching stomach and stifle the self-recriminations that ricocheted through her thoughts. Lufielne embraced her when he had finished.
"Aulden sent him," Cordelia said. "Andig is dead and you are maimed. Misfortune follows me."
"Perhaps he was running from Aulden."
"Lupus only kills those with evil blackening their heart. Isn't that what Cander meant?"
Lufielne pulled her up. "Lupus may come back, and we're almost out of the forest. He can't leave it."
They emerged from the woods as the moon rose against a clear sky awash with stars. They rested and drank enchanted wine that quenched their hunger and exhaustion. By the moon's gray light they traveled the edge of the moor and long before dawn, they peeked over the crest of an outcrop at the farm, all dark and sleeping.
"When I was a child, and my father was still alive, my brothers and I used to play on this hill. We threatened to push each other over the edge. We called it the heath cliff. Cast him off the heath cliff we would say." Cordelia laughed.
"I don't know. We grew up, and mother became bitter. So did the boys. I think father doted on me too much. I remember mother scowling at us. But how can you blame father's love for what Aulden has become?"
Lufielne nodded. "Can you fit through the attic window?"
"I've done it many times."
Lufielne held up his claw. "I'm an elf who can't climb a tree."
Cordelia felt the sting of his loss. "It may take some time to free the trapdoor. But don't worry," she said. "I can be as quiet as an elf when I want to be."
Lufielne gave her a vial filled with white powder and stoppered with a cork. "Whatever you do," he said. "Don't let any of it touch you. You'll sleep until sundown."
They embraced, and then Cordelia crawled along the edge of the outcrop. She stopped and turned back. "If Aulden catches me, I'll make a ruckus to wake everyone in the house. He'll beat me, but I don't think he'll kill me. He'll kill you on sight, so hide in the forest until we can talk again."
"Don't try to help me," insisted Cordelia. "I'll be fine."
"Go," said Lufielne, "before the sun rises."
Cordelia scaled the crab apple tree growing next to the house. The twigs snagged her cloak and scratched her hands. She last climbed a tree to escape danger. The encounter with the helshog seemed a distant memory. Now she climbed to find danger. She laughed to herself. If Aulden was more of a pig, a few crab apples might distract him. The upper branches bowed under her weight as she stretched for the window, grasped the frame, and pulled herself through the open shutters, landing on the floor with a thump. Aulden continued snoring.
One leg of the cot secured the trap door. Cordelia groaned at Aulden's clever barricade. She crept close to the bed and stood over his sleeping form as she pulled the cork that secured the vial. It was stuck. She wiped her sweaty palms on her cloak then twisted the stopper, but the vial slipped and shattered on the floor in a pile of white granules. She knelt to scoop it up then remembered Lufielne's warning. A tankard laying on its side smelt of ale. She hoped he had been drinking the good ale and not the weak ale they drank with their meals.
She fretted. Retrieve the knife or move the bed? She inched her fingers beneath the pillow, watching Aulden's closed eyes for the slightest change, stopping, then pressing deeper. He might grab her arm and crush it or slice off her hand and hang it with Lufielne's above the hearth. "That's what we do to thieves," he would say. Her finger touched metal, cold and smooth. She let out the breath she had been holding and thanked her maker that Aulden's head was not resting on the knife. With determination stoked by fear, she resisted wrenching the knife in a single effort.
The blade glimmered in the moonlight. In a moment of darkness, she considered plunging the knife into Aulden's chest. Did he know Andig's fate? Too much violence had already been done. She lay the knife at her knees and pushed the bed, scooting it across the floor in minute increments, mindful of Aulden's snoring. With a final shove, the bed jerked free of the trap door's lip. Cordelia gasped when Aulden stopped snoring. He shifted onto his back. She watched the blanket rise and fall until convinced that he still slept.
When she descended the ladder, she left the trap door open. Maybe Aulden would fall through and snap his neck, but she knew he would never be so careless. At her mother's door she paused. She had to tell her about Andig. Decency required it, and Aulden might send Endir to look for him. She pressed the door, but it held fast, stuck like the cork in the vial. The door yielded nothing to her efforts. She left the cottage and sprinted for the heath cliff.
Lufielne embraced her. Worry and joy wrote his expression. "So long? What happened?"
Cordelia passed the knife to Lufielne who sheathed it under his belt then listened to her account of the broken vial, her search under the pillow, the bed, and her mother's door stuck fast.
"We have to go back," she said. "Maybe you can open mother's door. I have to tell her about Andig."
"It's too dangerous. The sun's rising." He pointed to the glimmer spreading across the eastern horizon.
"No. They'll think we killed Andig, or the elves."
"I am an elf."
"I forget sometimes. You don't seem different to me anymore."
"Come on," Lufielne said, taking a step toward the moor. "We've tarried too long."
"Hide in the woods. I'll come when I can."
"They'll lock you up, tie you with a leash. You said so yourself."
"Will you help me with mother's door or not?"
"I'm not leaving you here."
Cordelia strode back to the cottage. Lufielne followed, but his efforts with the door yielded no more than hers.
"Something's blocking it," he whispered. "She's barricaded it."
Lufielne looked toward the attic.
Cordelia shuddered. "Let's both try, then we'll leave." They put their shoulders to the door and pressed in unison. The door gave way suddenly as something in the room crashed. A wardrobe lay on the floor. Cordelia's mother screamed. Cursing sounded from the attic. Lufielne grabbed Cordelia's arm and bolted for the door as Aulden jumped, skipping the final rungs on the ladder.
Lufielne pulled Cordelia across the yard toward a cart. "Get behind it," he told her. He took the knife from his belt.
Aulden stormed from the cottage, brandishing an axe. Fury and fear colored his face. He stopped short when he saw Lufielne crouched, prepared to fight.
Cordelia stepped forward. "The knife belongs to Lufielne. We've taken it back." She saw her mother in the doorway. A spade leaned against the cottage. "Andig's dead," she said, speaking past Aulden to her mother. "We found him in the forest and buried him."
"You think I don't know that, Elf-lover?" said Aulden.
"Where's Endir?" said Cordelia.
"His wound went bad," answered Aulden. "I had to cut his leg off."
Cordelia winced. Lufielne put his claw on her waist to nudge her toward the cart.
"You running, Elf? I should have lopped off your head."
Aulden raised the axe overhead to charge. Lufielne shoved Cordelia against the cart as he stepped in front of her, ready to parry Aulden's assault and stab him in the chest, but Lufielne's skills were never tested. Aulden fell face-first to the ground, like a hewn timber, the back of his skull cleaved. A red crease separated his hair where blood oozed onto the farmyard.
Cordelia's mother dropped the spade. She had slain her ogre. She looked to Cordelia with vacant eyes like a fire that has burnt to ash or a spring that has dried to dust. She stared, saying nothing, then turned and entered the cottage.
Cordelia stepped toward the house, but Lufielne grabbed her arm and pulled her away, and together they ran to the moor, to the wildflowers and the unbridled wind.
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Copyright 2011, Jeff Chapman. All rights reserved.
Jeff Chapman writes fairy tales, fantasy, and ghost stories and hearing the expression “just a fairy tale” rankles him. His works have appeared in various print anthologies and online publications. He lives with his wife and children in a house with more books than bookshelf space. To learn more, stop by his blog at http://jeffchapmanwriter.blogspot.com.