In the darkness two hours before dawn the company assembled, eager to be gone. It was a chill morning near the dead end of autumn. Stars blazed everywhere in the black sky. Six horses stood saddled, five for the companions and one pack horse. The Masters were there and gathered round them in the night were dozens of Rangers, looking on in silence, hard to see in their gray or green cloaks, hoods thrown over their heads against the cold. In the distance hounds were barking loudly.
“I still don’t like it,” Arden grumbled to Evénn at the noise.
“Leaving the dogs and wolf, you mean?”
“Yes. It doesn’t feel right.”
“I know,” Evénn said sympathetically. “I don’t like it either, but it makes sense. If anyone sees us, they will know at once who we are. Wolfhounds are the mark of Rangers, and the wolf will draw even more unwanted attention. Master Raynall is correct. We cannot afford to be recognized.”
“But they’re damned useful, and Argos always goes with me.”
“None of us likes it, Arden,” said Master Raynall, walking up to them, Keral and Falimar by his side. “In my youth, and in yours, parties of Rangers and their hounds were a common sight. No longer. You and your companions must get as far as you can unnoticed, and without giving battle. That would only bring more dragon’s men.”
“I understand, Master, and I will comply. I feel we shall need them before the end, however.”
“That may be so of many things, Arden. But it is time for your journey to begin. It will be long and winter is pressing upon us.” Then he turned to the entire company and said “May god guide your hearts and your hands. Now go.”
Arden and the other Rangers mounted their horses. Evénn stayed a moment longer to clasp Raynall by the hand.
“Farewell again, old friend. I’m glad we had this chance to meet once more.”
“Old friend is right,” Raynall said, and shivered against the cold. “Yet maybe we shall see each other once more, in a time of peace.”
“That is my hope also,” said Evénn. “Fare well, Master of Rangers.”
“And fare you well, dragonslayer.”
Evénn then let go his hand and smiled upon him. He mounted Moonglow, and with a look and a nod to the others, he began to ride away, side by side with Arden. Behind them followed Jalonn and Agarwen. Last came Niall, leading the pack horse, and gazing steadily off towards the woods to the south. Not until he passed the part of the Valley where his cottage stood did he look forward, setting his eyes firmly on the road now before him.
All along the way across the Valley, the company passed groups of Rangers and others, dimly visible, their faces unseen and names unguessable. Some raised their hands in a gesture of parting, several could be glimpsed bowing deeply, a few called out words of encouragement in low voices. Each time, one or another of the party answered with a wave of the hand. Even to Arden, who seldom saw other Rangers and had not visited the Valley for this long for many years, the kindness of their encouragement was welcome. The unity the Rangers had shown in supporting the Council’s decision and in stepping forward to offer help in any way made him recognize that he had not been as alone as he thought in disliking the Council’s former policy. He also knew that his party would not be the only one to go abroad in the next few weeks. Many others would also scatter alone or by twos or threes across the land to wait upon the events at Narinen, and their repercussions. The Masters wanted the Rangers to be ready when the storm broke.
Throughout the crossing of the Valley, the hounds never stopped barking. It had been difficult to coax them into cages to keep them from following. They seemed to understand that they were being left behind. The wolf had bared his teeth and snarled as soon as he saw the cages. It was only when Evénn spoke to him in a soft voice and whispered in his ear that he consented. And how long the wolf and the hounds would need to remain confined, no one knew. Evénn suggested the wolf might have to be kept there a very long time. Arden had seen how it pained him to say so. The wolf had never before been restrained in any way, and it seemed a betrayal of his willingness and his friendship. For, as Evénn said, the wolf had chosen him and was his own master.
Arden shared several glances with Evénn, and once looked back to Agarwen. She shrugged when their eyes met, looking as ill pleased as the rest of them. Arden turned forward again, listening to the confusion of the hounds’ voices as they echoed off the Valley’s stone walls. The closer the companions came to the gorge of the River of the Stars, the louder the desperate noise seemed to grow, until Arden realized that every wolfhound and other dog in the Valley had joined in. Arden did not envy the Master of Hounds this morning.
Then a single voice, haunting and melodious, soared above the rest: the wolf howling of grief and betrayal. Evénn stiffened, the reins tightening in his hand, but he rode on into the gorge, where the deeper darkness and the water roaring through the mist drowned their senses. It reminded Arden of riding waves in the sea as a boy, of being buried in that salty, foaming, turbulent rush, and knowing no other life. Yet this moment was not the same, not as complete. There was too much of himself in it, too many thoughts of what was, what had been, and what was to come.
When they emerged into the winter-bare forest, the colors of dawn filled the sky, and tinted the high snows on the Mountain of the Stars above and behind them. Turning north the companions began their long ride, first to the gore of the North and South Deer rivers, then east towards the sea, the City of Arden’s youth, and the red dragon.
All that day they rode through the forest, seeing no one, but at times they felt the watchful presence of the Guardians silently letting them pass. Now and then Evénn cocked his head slightly to one side to listen, then nodded to himself and smiled, but he gave no other hint that he heard any sound but those natural to the woods late in the year. The forest had changed of course since Arden and Evénn had first ridden through these woods together nearly two months ago. The scarlet and golden canopy – the flowers of red handed autumn, as a poet in centuries past named them – which had arched over their heads on the road south, now lay strewn across the forest floor before their horses’ feet in an equally glorious carpet of many colors.
In places the horses waded through leaves as high as their knees; and here and there in some small hollow of the land or against the thick bole of a fallen oak luxuriant drifts of leaves piled themselves far deeper, harbingers of the snow drifts that would soon succeed them. The persistent rains this year had left the leaves sodden and at times slippery beneath their horses’ feet, and they moved through the drifts with care. But the snows had not yet come, and all that day they hurried north, now trotting, now cantering through the bare trees and beneath a blue sky. In the dusk they stopped for the night.
By noon of the next day they passed the clearing where Jalonn and the guardians had first met Arden and Evénn, and evening saw them well to the north of it. On the third day they began to push their horses harder since they were far enough away from the Valley that they need not worry about leaving tracks. That night the sky clouded over, followed by a cold, soaking rain which lasted for days. Its chill penetrated their bones. The next night they built a fire in a cave to regain the warmth the rains had stolen, but for the two days after that they had to shelter under the lee of rock walls. Not the least patch of blue broke through the clouds by day and the mountainsides above them grew white. Each day dawned colder than the last, and each morning the snows had crept further down the mountains.
Late on the seventh day after they left the Valley they came to the Great Road. Across the first blue sky Arden had seen in days clouds went scudding, their edges sharp and luminous when they crossed the face of the sun. In their swift progress they reminded Arden of ships he had seen as a boy running for port on the ragged wings of a storm. All day he had kept his eye on the clouds as they sailed in succession over the Gray Mountains and raced eastward across the plains. They held the promise of more rain, a promise Arden had no doubt they would keep.
Still he watched them now as he lay beneath a thicket on a hill overlooking the road. Two hours ago a strong company of the dragon’s men, sixty all told, had marched by heading east. Since then nothing had moved on the road except shadows, first of the clouds, then of the mountains themselves as the sun sank behind them. Night would soon fall and the party had spread out in a long line, fifty yards apart from each other, to keep watch on the road. Trees, rocks, and brambles lent them cover while they waited. There they would lie concealed until it was fully dark. If they saw nothing, they would gather and cross the road one by one. While the Rangers had no knowledge of a hidden force of troopers in this area now, in the past the enemy had established small bands of spies in unexpected places, both here and elsewhere, to observe any who passed by.
Whenever the Rangers discovered such a post, they destroyed it. But the troopers were many and the Rangers few, and there was good reason for the enemy to spy on the Great Road, which left the Mountain Gate of the City and traversed the mountains and rivers, forests and plains of Narinen to end at the port of Sufra beside the Western Ocean. For hundreds of years it had been the main route east and west for troops, merchants, and other travelers. Countless feet had walked and ridden its wide stone paved course. Cisterns and wells bordered it at intervals, and a high curb on either side ensured that no one could easily wander from it even on the darkest night. Towns and cities flourished where it crossed other roads – lost Osenora had been the greatest of these – and between them isolated taverns and villages sprang up beside it.
But that was before the Fall. These days the road was mostly frequented by patrols of the enemy or couriers or the few licensed merchants who still existed. Only at harvest time was there much traffic, when the grain was gathered to Narinen or other strongholds, and herds of cattle or swine were driven to the slaughter pens to feed the dragon’s soldiers.
From where he lay at the eastern end of their line Arden looked down this road that led to his long ago, far away home. Now his path led back there at last. But this time, he hoped, it would end differently than it had when he was a boy. He could see nearly a mile down the road to the east before it ran out of sight around a bend between two low hills. And if his eyes could see that far, so could those of any enemy who might be watching. He found himself wishing the hounds and the wolf were with them. Here they would have proved their worth. They could have scouted far down the road and through the woods, where even Evénn could not see – as good as his eyes were, they could not see through hills and trees to find a hidden foe – and run back through the woods to alert the party to any threat. Arden and the others may have had a good view of a long stretch of road, but with Argos, the wolf, and the others’ hounds, they could have seen farther and deeper.
In the darkness an hour after sunset, they drew together. In three patient hours none of them had seen or heard anything. Evénn crossed the road first, quickly and quietly, on foot with Moonglow and the pack horse behind him. His eyes and ears were less easily fooled in the darkness, and if he detected any danger in the woods beyond the road, he would signal them. But no signal came. Ten minutes later, Niall followed with his horse and Arden’s. Afterwards they let a half hour go by, long enough for any watcher, who might have thought he saw a shadow moving on the road, to decide he had been mistaken. Then Agarwen slipped across with Touchstone and Bufo. Jalonn and Arden let nearly an hour pass before they came over together, bows in hand and arrows notched. To Arden’s relief no wolves howled as they crossed the road.
For a time they kept near the road, only listening. Then they walked their horses about a half mile into the forest, and rode for several hours before making camp for the night, safe again in the deep woods that were their home. Evénn, tireless as always, took the first watch while the rest slept. In the night Arden dreamed he had ridden down the whole length of the road to the City and was approaching the Mountain Gate just as the sun rose. It looked just as it had in his childhood. The gates were intact and the banners of the Republic rippled in the breeze off the sea. For a moment he thought his whole life had just been a bad dream. Then a passing shadow made him look up. A dragon sailed high overhead and when he turned his eyes back to the City, the other three dragons sat perched upon the walls and gate, watching him. He felt they were waiting for him. A pall of smoke spread behind them, and the early sun glowed redly through it. Arden then awoke to find it was almost morning. Evénn was sitting with his back to a tree, his eyes upon Arden. It was raining again. He joined the others in preparing to move on.
On the afternoon of the eleventh day as they were drawing close to the South Deer, Agarwen called out to them to halt. Since dawn she had been riding at the rear of their line, taking her turn leading the pack horse. Several times in the last few hours she had stopped and let the others draw ahead. Once the hoof beats faded, she sat in the silence for a while before hurrying after her companions. Now she rode forward.
“What is it, Agarwen?” Master Jalonn asked.
“We are being followed,” she said. “All day I have felt there was someone behind us. Now I’m sure.”
“Who do you think –” Niall began, but stopped when Evénn raised his hand. The elf was listening closely.
“She’s right,” he said after a moment. “Someone is back there, coming up fast. Not horses, though.”
“What, then?” Jalonn asked, as he gestured to the others to get out of sight.
“I can’t tell yet.”
The Rangers had already scattered into the forest, leaving Evénn and Jalonn alone. Even at this time of year, they could vanish almost at will. Without a word, Evénn slipped from Moonglow’s back and handed the reins to Jalonn, who rode off to conceal the horses. For a moment Evénn peered back the way they had come, then withdrew behind a nearby beech. He was still listening, his head cocked to one side and a look of intense concentration on his face. No one moved, except to loosen their swords in their sheaths and unsling their bows. They wondered how they could have been discovered so soon.
Strangely, then, Evénn began to smile, a compact, mischievous smile, which gave way to a burst of joyous laughter that amazed his hidden comrades. He leaped from cover, just as Argos and the wolf trotted into sight. Arden stepped out to greet Argos, who knocked him to the ground and licked his face. The wolf was also glad to see them, but he gave Evénn a dark look, and laid his ears back.
“I’d say that was a look of reproach, Evénn,” Niall said as he walked up.
“Which I deserve,” the elf answered, gazing happily down at the wolf. “Being caged was a sore test of a loyal heart.”
“This complicates matters,” said Jalonn, not entirely displeased, “but they are here now and will prove useful.”
“Yes, they will,” said Arden, as he wrestled Argos off his chest and stood up, “and we can hardly take them back.”
“Not that they would go,” Agarwen added, patting the wolf, who was rather fond of her. “Their pens were strongly built. I’m surprised they escaped. It’s a pity they didn’t all get away.”
Not long after they resumed their journey they came to the South Deer. The current was strong with rainfall and the water icy cold. Still with care they made it across safely, then turned east towards the Plains of Rheith. At dusk they made camp. Their plan was to rest the horses here for a day or two and take stock of their situation. Now that the dog and wolf were here, some attention would also have to be devoted to them. At the very least they had to be exhausted, hungry, and footsore. After bolting down the food Niall set before them, they curled up and went at once to sleep.
It was a bitter night, lit by fierce stars and a moon three days past full. The sap popped and cracked in the maples around them. Since the edge of the woods was miles away, or perhaps because he silently approved of the heroic efforts of Argos and the wolf to overtake them, Master Jalonn agreed to a small fire. While Agarwen kindled the wood gathered by Niall and Arden, Evénn sang a whispering song of concealment. Though glad of the fire, none of them wished to take any chances. For Rangers were not the only ones to wander in the wild.
As they warmed themselves, they assessed their progress. All agreed that Arden’s route had proved a good choice, since north of the Great Road the Gray Mountains began to bend eastward towards the Coastal Range, until, not far from where the companions crossed the South Deer, they split into two smaller ranges. One spur, at the end of which lay Caledon, ran back to the northwest; the other turned sharply eastward until, another few days' ride to the north, the gap between the Gray Mountains and the Green Hills was no more than two hundred miles wide. Jalonn calculated that they had already shortened their journey across the less sheltered plains by nearly three days.
From here it was about three days’ ride down to the tip of the gore, where the North and South Deer joined to form the Great Deer. Men who knew only maps often scoffed at this river’s name, Arden told them, because it was so short, no more than a long day’s ride. They did not grasp how impassable its racing, narrow stream and its banks cut deep into the rich black earth made it, winter or summer; and the closer to the Rheith, the more perilous it became to try crossing it. So powerful was the Great Deer that it did not flow, but struck into the Rheith, turning its waters, which ran broad and swift themselves, into a maelstrom of treacherous, conflicting currents. For this reason the companions would cross the North Deer before it met the South, and, following the northern bank, come down to the Rheith above its confluence with the Great Deer.
In the morning Evénn and Niall examined the legs and feet of the horses closely, to make sure they had taken no harm from the long days and fast pace of their journey. For over ten centuries the Masters of Horses had been breeding horses, selecting always the hardy and the swift. And by their care they had provided the Rangers with mounts almost matchless in speed and endurance. But there were many leagues to travel yet, and the companions were glad to find no sign of injury or weakness.
Not so with Argos and the wolf. Their paws were swollen and almost raw from constant running, and they were still clearly very tired. There was no telling when they escaped, yet every day in the Valley meant another fifty miles they had to make up. With tears in his eyes, Evénn fetched herbs and a salve from his saddlebags. After steeping the herbs in hot water, he bathed their feet and applied the salve. Then he murmured a spell of healing sleep over them, and let them rest. That afternoon and evening he repeated the treatment and fed them. In the morning the two were much improved, and the wolf began to look upon Evénn with a kinder eye. Though they wished to move about the camp, Evénn allowed them to do little more than eat and sleep that day and the next.
On the morning of the fourth day the companions set out again. The sky was bright, without a cloud, and as the sun mounted towards noon the wind dropped away to nothing. It even grew warm enough for them to think of removing their cloaks. As she rode along, enjoying the day after so many days of cold and rain, Agarwen summoned up the image of the maps of this region they had studied before leaving the Valley. She had never been in this land before, though Arden and Jalonn had. They seemed to know it well. Every now and then the other night Jalonn had nodded in confirmation while Arden spoke of the rivers and where they should cross them. In her mind now she envisioned the gore narrowing to its point as the rivers drew closer to each other. She wondered how far away the North Deer was right now, and when they would be close enough to hear it.
She also noticed that the land began to drop steadily the further they travelled from the mountains. It grew moist and full of brooks and rills. The maples they had camped beneath on the nights they were resting slowly gave way to alders and willows, tress that rejoiced to grow on the banks of streams and rivers. By the time they finally crossed the North Deer just before noon on the third day, there was not a maple to be seen. The forest had transformed itself.
Evénn had changed as well. All afternoon he kept quiet, dwelling in some thought or memory, an absent look in his eyes. At times his fingers brushed across a tree trunk or hanging branch. That evening in camp he seemed unaware of the mad roar of the Great Deer that filled the woods around them. Even as the twilight faded into night he kept staring off into the woods, running his hand over the branch of the willow beside him.
“What is it, Evénn?” Agarwen asked him when it had become so dark she could barely see. “What are you looking at? Or maybe I should ask where you are instead?”
“Oh? Forgive me, Agarwen,” he answered, a little startled. He came back to sit among them. “This place has made me think of the Forest of Willow in Talor. I dwelt there once.”
“That place has an ill name, Evénn, especially for those who seek the dragon.”
“But it is an ill deserved name,” he said. “For thousands of years the Forest of Willow has been a place of magical beauty and peace, beloved by my people, and by all who know it. Your people loved it once, too, before they crossed the sea. It’s true. The black dragon bewitched Conaras there. But the dragon’s spite doesn’t make the forest itself evil, does it? We were on our way home to visit our families, and Conn went walking in the woods that night.
“In the springtime there, Agarwen, the meadows and woods are awash with the color and fragrance of flowers. In the light airs hosts of daffodils gently nod to the violets growing beside them. Their numbers are greater than the heart of elf or man could hope for; and the willows around them blossom as well, with catkins, green above and gray below, gracing their supple limbs. Dogwoods and cherry trees are scattered among the willows and fill the eyes with their profusion of white and pink blossoms. At night frogs sing in chorus until the songbirds of morning return.
“Summer shimmers with heat and warm, moist breezes from the sea. Under the grateful shade of the willows, forget-me-nots grow, and endless lilies spread throughout the forest from the banks of countless brooks. The red lilies beside the waters are bright as lanterns that light your way into the dusk. Farther from the banks are white and yellow lilies, mixed with hyacinths and nasturtiums and wild raspberries with their red fruit and white flowers. And all the meadows that were so full of daffodils and violets are now covered in poppies, white, yellow, orange, and red. At night the nightingale sings and fireflies laze on the balmy air.
“On the northern edge of the forest not far from the sea there is a hill. It is not a tall hill, but it rises high enough above the tree tops for one at its summit to see the waves rolling in from the ocean to the long, white strand. To me it was the best place in all the forest. For there, sitting beneath the hickory trees which grew on the crown of the hill, I could be surrounded by the forest and all its joys and yet still see and hear the waves, and smell the salt in the air. It was not far from my house, and I spent many an afternoon and evening there, reveling in the heart’s ease I felt there, and watching the sun sink into the ocean at the day’s end. Afterwards I would sit among the fireflies and gaze up at the stars, and listen to the sound of the waves mingling with the rustling of the leaves on the trees. Sometimes when the breeze would come and go gently, it was hard to distinguish the two sounds. For the rustle of the leaves would ebb and flow just like the murmur of the waves running up the beach and back again. And the difference did not matter. They both were blessed with the loveliness of things that grow and move and change from one moment to the next.
“Rocks and hills and mountains have their own beauty, and they do change, but so slowly that even we scarcely notice it. They are the constant stage on which the drama of living, growing, and moving things plays out. There is a comfort and hope in their timelessness, just as a promontory or fixed sea mark is a comfort and a hope to mariners; but it is the beauty of the sea, ever changing and ever the same, that captures their souls and gives them joy.
“Once I was fortunate enough to live beneath the eaves of this forest, to walk its paths, and to think my thoughts in peace while I watched the beauty of living things – both the forest and the sea – come and go and come again. For a time I also had my family beside me there as I sat through evenings of summers long gone. The Forest of Willow is a wondrous place. For your sake I hope that one day you will walk there in peace. Maybe we shall do so together.”
Evénn’s voice, so gently persuasive and longing for ghostly pleasures, conjured in each of them a vision of those woods. Though they were thousands of miles across the sea from the Forest of Willow, beneath other willows which slept in the wintry night, Arden could see the sunlit sea, and hear the sounds of leaves and waves; for a moment he remembered without bitterness the peace he had known for much of his youth. Niall could see these things, too, but his thoughts returned more to the wife and children he had left behind in the Valley, and to how much he missed them already.
Agarwen had never seen the ocean, but she had seen its light shine in the eyes of Arden and Niall when they spoke of it. She wondered if it could truly be more beautiful than the Forest of Tasar and the peaks of the Gray Mountains, which were the only home she had ever known. The trees and the flowers of those forests were different from those of the Forest of Willow, but she knew what he meant when he spoke of the heart’s ease he had felt there.
Though Jalonn’s childhood off in the south of Narinen was hardly a memory of peace, he was not unmoved by Evénn’s words. Without parents or any kin except his grandmother, he had fought to survive as a boy, but the Forest of Willow sounded not unlike his own land: a profusion of growth in the spring and sultry summer that he had not observed with his senses as much as his senses were so filled to brimming with their colors, shapes, sounds and fragrances that he became lost in them. It gave Jalonn pleasure to recall these things, but only for themselves, not for any pleasant associations they might have had with his childhood. For he had none, and did not trust the emotions that memory inspired.