03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 1

One

With his back pressed against the alder, Arden watched the full moon rise beyond the mountains. His hands rested behind him on the cool, smooth bark and at times he thought he could almost feel the tree’s long, slow life pulsing faint and distant beneath his fingers. Above him the withered alder leaves rattled against each other at the touch of the night breeze, and all along the brook the trees whispered in answer. Leaves drifted down to settle beside the many others he had already seen fall today. Autumn was at hand.
A few caught the moonlight as they sailed and fluttered on the air. Their brief, pale flash in the darkness reminded Arden of the fireflies in long ago summers, but in the dry, western lands of his exile no such creatures lived to delight young eyes in the evening. Arden had not seen a firefly for many a year. So he watched the moon rise and listened to the quiet, downhill murmur of the water. It was the never-ending voice of the wood, around which all the other sounds he heard, of beast or bird, of wind or tree, were woven. To Arden's ears the voice seemed fair and peaceful, but still it was not the sea.
The breeze brushed his face and hair. The great, black hound curled at his feet lifted his muzzle to it, his nostrils flaring to catch the least scent of pursuit. Arden watched the dog as closely as he could in the darkness beneath the trees, knowing he would be the first to know they were no longer alone. After a while the hound looked up at him, sighed as if to say “nothing yet,” and lowered his head. Though the wolfhound’s eyes were closed, Arden knew he did not sleep. He was waiting for the sound or smell that would tell him that their time of rest, such as it was, had ended.
“Aye, Argos," Arden whispered, “nothing yet.”
Time passed. Man and dog kept their silent vigil. Arden raised his eyes to the moon again as it climbed completely over the shoulder of the distant mountain, miles away across the broad valley. Bright now at its full, the moon chased the night’s shadows with its own, drawing shades of silver and gray out of the hitherto unvarying blackness. Through the trees he could discern again the shapes of standing groves and farm houses, hillocks and barns, in the valley beneath him, shapes that had left his sight as soon as the sun had gone.
Time passed. It would not be long now, he thought, before they overtook him again. He had lost them yesterday afternoon at the ford. He had lost them, and his horse, struck in the neck by an arrow just after they had crossed the deepest part of the swollen river. Somehow he and Argos had survived the violent passage downstream. His sword and dagger he still had; his bow, its last arrow spent, was lost along with his horse and food. They had scrambled up the bare ridge which rose from the swift river’s bank, slipping and stumbling on the loose stones that rattled downhill behind them. Once over the top they turned north and hastened all that night and the following morning until they came down the ridge to the hill where they now rested and watched, twenty five miles and more north of the ford.
Yet the enemy still had horses, though fewer horses than men, along with mountain wolves to track and kill their prey. And they would not rest. Time passed and time was on their side. Once across the river, a hard crossing by foot or by horse, even the wolves would have a task before them to pick up the trail again amid the bare stones of the ridge, but in time they would find it and the chase would begin once more. So, to gain a respite before they had to fight again, Arden and the hound had pressed on without stopping, using the time the wolves would need to find their trail to put as much distance between them as possible. Two nights and two days of haste, flight, and combat might overmatch even the hardiest. So now, their respite won, man and hound watched, moved little, and took what sleep they could, but it was the sleep of those waiting for something to happen. It was the best they could manage. It was all they could risk.
A sudden, distant clamor arose in the valley below them. The hound stirred, moving nothing but his head, attention trained on the sound. Arden slipped his hand from behind him and reached inside his green cloak, to rest it on the hilt of his sword. Dogs were barking, a man shouting, his words unintelligible, but his tone was clearly recognizable: a man annoyed, shouting at his dogs to be quiet, so he could have some peace after a long day in the fields. A door slammed. No doubt a farmer eager for his bed. But what were the dogs roused at? Arden wondered. He waited but heard nothing more. At last he withdrew his hand from his sword. Had the wolves and men been there, no effort of the farmer would have silenced the dogs; and more shouting would have followed as his pursuers questioned the farmer about their quarry. But there was only silence again, and the memory of sounds heard from afar at night, magnified by darkness and a careworn mind.
Again he returned to watching the moon, high enough now for the grain in the fields to be dimly visible. It waved in the night air like ghostly waves making their way to the shore. As Arden stood gazing out from beneath the shelter of the trees, he thought of his youth in the days of the Republic. He remembered the red, summer moons, which used to rise from the eastern ocean as he sat on the beach at night with his friends. Those moons glowed with all the heat of the hopes and passions he had known as a boy; and as they rose above the hot, summer air and slowly brightened to a shining white, they promised growth and change and a glittering life that would make the stars themselves grow dim, just as even the most brilliant stars faded before a full, white moon.
For himself and for his friends, Arden had dreamed, life would soar upward to a zenith of successful hopes, each as they wished and worked for them. But surely they would come, whichever path they chose, whatever passions and ambitions moved them. And only when this had all come to be would they sink from their peak to old age and darkness, like the moon to its setting in the west. Yet their friends and children would not forget them. Such were the first hopes of his youth.
Of late Arden had pondered his memories of his friends and their youth together differently. Were they true as he remembered them, or did he, as men often did in after years, vary the hue and tenor of these memories to suit his longing for better days? Didn’t people always do that and think that life had been better when they were green and young? Didn’t they forget the bitter depths of old disappointments when it suited them, so their memories could yield a harvest of comfort for the failed crops of later days? Had it been really so good? Did he remember true? True enough, Arden decided, when comfort was needed. And so it was.
His first friend had been Hedále. They had met when Arden was fourteen and Hedále twelve. Too tall and too thin, laughter always in his eyes, as if he saw humor in the world that the world did not yet see, even as a boy Hedále had been blessed with many talents. One night he had simply picked up an instrument and begun to play it as if he had done so all his life. But he had never before touched one. More than this he had all the talents of a friend. He could talk when needed or listen and tell no one. Anyone could trust him completely and rely on his kindness and loyalty. Hedále’s home and Arden’s were the closest to each other, scarcely a quarter mile apart across the fields, and so they had always walked home together at the day’s or night’s end.
Loran and Cal were sister and brother, clever, funny, and true, schooled and interested in the nature of things, blue eyed and covered in freckles, knowing the ridiculous when they saw it as only the young and bright can. They fought, too, as only brothers and sisters of that age can fight: Loran, the younger and more cautious, always threatening to tell their mother but never telling, always going along in the end, sometimes even instigating the most outrageous mischief, like the night they pasted a false beard on the statue of Stochas, Narinen’s last king and the founder of the Republic; Cal, older, more reckless and suggestible, ready for anything that was likely to end in laughter, then all the more ready with clever words and the not quite plausible explanations that brought a smirk of incredulity to his father’s face.
The last of this group of friends was tall, her hair red gold, with skin tanned by the summer sun. Her eyes were green, the color of an ocean wave as it curls over and is illuminated from above by the sun in the moment of its breaking. The long years had not dimmed that color for Arden. Her thought was quick and lively, her heart wise for its years, both kind and strong. And Arden had loved her. She was the morning of summer. But she was also the promised of another, no matter what he might have seen or hoped he had seen in her glance. Hers was the first shadow to fall upon his heart.
Through discipline he had taught himself neither to speak nor think her name. Though he had not forgotten it, it lay interred in the crypt of his memory, sealed behind a door that must remain shut. For years afterward Arden had tried to tell himself that the love they had never declared was no more than friendship, no more than the exaltation of that age at which all friends are in love, but none who knew him, not even those who only saw her ghost in his eyes, ever believed him.
In the end neither could he. Their affection for each other was no indulgence of his fancy to be dismissed with a laugh or sigh, no half-willing misremembrance of a past that had never existed in fact. For his love of her hunted him down all the miles and decades of his life. In his heart he named her Sorrow, and she came to him unbidden in his dreams. Thus were all his falsehoods belied.
The last time they had all been together was the last day of the summer of Arden’s eighteenth year. As was their custom on that day, they met upon the shore before dawn to watch the sun rise, and there they remained until well after dark. Though they would see each other frequently throughout the year, they were together most often in the lazy summers along the eastern shore. Tomorrow would mark their childhood’s end. They would disperse across the wide Land of Narinen to begin their studies at different scholar’s towns, some quite far from the City and the sea which they loved.
The sun rose and blazed on through noon and on into the west. Long, reddish gray shadows stretched across the sands to touch the waves as they rolled in from the eastern ocean. All day they had baked in that sunlight and refreshed themselves in those cool waters, at times riding the curl of the breaking waves to the very edge of the sea. But mostly they talked and laughed, with serious subjects endlessly yielding to the absurd conversations of youth, and then, laughing again, they returned to speaking of serious matters.
In that late, last afternoon, that almost evening, as the sun rested for a moment on the western horizon and the land breeze came up to tousle the leaves on the trees beyond the sand, they lay there, still talking, still laughing, with the sunlight caught glistening in the beads of sea water on their tan skin. Today that moment lived for an hour, as if time itself had stopped the sun for their sake, so that youth and mirth and beauty might abide with them an hour longer. Their laughter rang across the empty beach and they looked at each other with a lifetime’s affection in their eyes. Arden turned his gaze to Sorrow and met hers, and there their eyes rested as if for another hour. Then the sun set and their moment ended. Twilight rose from the sea and they turned away.
“Where do you think they are now?” Loran asked abruptly, her voice full of concern as night came on.
“Our men, you mean,” Cal said. It was more a statement than a question. They all knew what she meant.
“Yes. Do I have to explain everything?”
“Well, you don’t make yourself very clear, Loran.”
“Even if they had a slow crossing, they would have sailed into Elashandra several weeks ago,” Arden replied, ignoring the budding argument between brother and sister. “By now, they could be hundreds of miles further east.”
“Has the battle with the dragons begun, do you think?” Sorrow said as she looked across the sea into the rising gloom.
“I don’t know. Perhaps,” said Arden. “But there’s no need to worry. The elves are strong, and with our men by their side they are stronger yet. The elves have defeated dragons before, you know.”
“Oh, those are just stories,” Loran interjected. “You can’t believe them.”
“Loran –” Cal warned.
“I believe them,” Arden interrupted. “Why shouldn’t I?”
“So do I,” said Hedále. “Arden’s right. Why shouldn’t we believe them?”
“But that was all over a thousand years ago,” Loran protested. “Elves and magic and dragons. They’re good stories. I love them, too, but that’s all they are.”
“Those stories have been handed down unchanged from singer to singer since before there was a Republic,” said Hedále, rather vehemently. His apprenticeship under Dorlas, one of the chief singers of Narinen, began the next day.
“But how do you know about the stories themselves? How do you know they haven’t changed? Have you ever seen a manuscript of the songs from a thousand years ago? And even if they are the same, that doesn’t mean they’re true. You can’t possibly believe they are!”
“But Loran, clearly there are elves and dragons,” said Cal. “And there are no manuscripts. You know that. The singers learn the songs by heart.”
“Yes, I know, Cal, but that doesn’t make the magic real, or the heroes that fought the dragons, or their victories against impossible odds. And without manuscripts we can’t know what the story was before. Tales grow in the telling, don’t you see? And magic is a lot of nonsense.”
“Our grandfather believes in it,” said Cal, who saw his grandfather as the font of all worldly and spiritual wisdom.
“I know that, Cal, but he’s old. Old men believe in myths. If that world ever existed, we don’t live in it any more.”
“Maybe there’s a good reason they believe,” said Hedále.
“Yes, maybe they know more than we do,” Sorrow said to Loran, “and do you two always have to quarrel?”
“Yes,” Cal answered, grinning.
“Oh, we do not,” Loran protested, but with a laugh quickly echoed by the others.
“What about our men across the sea?” Sorrow asked again after a moment.
The laughter ceased.
“I am sure all will be well,” Hedále said. “But I am worried about my father and brother. Even in the old songs not everyone came home.”
They grew quiet, thinking of the fathers, brothers, and friends they had watched sail off in the great fleet two months ago. Then they were all so certain of a swift victory and a glorious homecoming for their friends and family. Now, after nearly eight weeks without a word from the east, they were no longer so sure. Each dawn brought only the sunrise, and each sunrise only brought the day of conflict closer. Whatever the outcome, they knew, some would not return. And this made them anxious. For Hedále, Loran, Cal, and Sorrow had fathers and brothers with the army, and Arden a brother. His own father had been too old for the expedition. It embarrassed Arden that age kept his father safe while his friends’ fathers were all in peril, and at the same time denied him the deathless glory that would grace the victors the morning they sailed into Narinen.
“Yes, all will be well,” Arden muttered quietly, then began again more forcefully. “We will win. You’ll see. Magic or not. God will protect our men and we will win.”
“That’s right, “ said Hedále and Cal in near unison.
“I don’t know,” Sorrow said, looking at Arden. “God’s plans don’t always make sense to humans. I usually can’t even understand what my parents are thinking, let alone god.”
Arden looked down, trying to conceal his heart from her.
“I don’t think there is a god,” Loran added, almost desperately.
“Look at the beauty of the world, Loran, and the sea and the stars,” Arden protested. This was not the first time he had heard her say this. “How can there be such beauty without a god?”
“And how can there be this war and this evil and this suffering if there is? Even if we win, even if we destroy the dragons, thousands have already died, and more will die before the end. How could god allow that?”
“I don’t know,” said Hedále. “I just know that when I am playing and singing, it feels as if I could reach out and touch god. But then I see people suffer and I wonder.”
“Just because we don’t understand doesn’t prove anything,” Sorrow said.
“I know,” Hedále replied.
The twilight was ended now and more and more stars kindled into view. It was fully night, with the last lingering glow of sunset gone from the west. The sand grew cold. They quietly packed up and walked away from the sea that continued to wash the shore as if they had never been there. At the back of the beach, they climbed the long wooden stairs to the top of the bluff to the north, from which they could see the City of Narinen glowing softly in the darkness two miles away. There atop the bluff they made ready to part, reassuring each other with words and embraces, confident that despite their cares and the losses to come, all would be well in the end; and they would all meet here once again when the war was over and their first year of studies completed.
Sorrow and Loran and Cal walked ahead a little, while Arden and Hedále lingered a moment looking at the sea. Behind them Sorrow cast a long look back at Arden. She started to pause, to wait for him, but Loran put her arm around Sorrow’s shoulder and gently guided her onward and away from him. Cal pretended not to notice and began talking once more. Arden and Hedále were watching the moon rise blood red from the ocean as they had so many times before.
“I know that it is only the heat that makes the moon red,” Arden said in a low voice, “but tonight it bothers me. I am afraid Alairan, my brother, will never return. And I fear we will never stand here again.”
“It does seem redder than usual, and I don’t like the way the wind has suddenly come round out of the east,” Hedále answered. “That’s not normal. I feel as if the wind is bringing us something, ill news, or something, I don’t know what. And now there’s this moon, as red as blood. It scares me, too. I wonder where they are.”
“I imagine we’ll hear something soon,” Arden said, trying to sound confident, and together he and Hedále turned and followed the others, hurrying to overtake them for their last farewells.
Fallen leaves rustled in the woods nearby, though the wind had dropped to nothing. Arden opened his eyes, knowing now that he had been asleep, and dreaming rather than thinking. The hound was already up and moving stealthily towards this disturbance of the calm night. Silent as the hound, Arden shook his cloak back from his shoulders and followed. As he drew his sword and dagger, his thoughts strayed one last time to his friends, and he savored the warmth and even the pain which dreaming of that time brought to his heart.
But that was thirty years ago.
Before the dragons came.
They were all dead now.

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