03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 10.2

Despite the encouraging warmth of the last few days, it was winter again by morning. Frost crunched beneath their boots as they packed up their camp and saddled the horses. Today they would come to the River Rheith, which even this far north was a mightier river than any they had yet crossed. Every brook, stream, or river that came down from the mountains on either side of the plain sooner or later fed the Rheith until it was swollen with rain and chill with winter. There were no bridges. The companions would have to swim their horses across.
Before an hour had passed, they could hear the river through the trees, and by the time they they reached its banks two hours after sunrise the voice of the waters had grown so loud that they could hear little else. They conversed in near shouts as they looked out over it from under the trees. It lay shining in the morning light, racing southeast in haste to find the sea. Here the Reith was still only one hundred and fifty yards wide, far less than the eight hundred it spanned in the south, but the channel was deeper.
When they tested the waters, they found them as cold and their current as swift as they had feared. Without horses they would have been without hope. Niall waded in and was soon almost out of his depth. Though not even ten feet from the bank, he was nearly swept away. Jalonn had to ride in to assist him, breaking the stream’s force by placing his horse upstream of Niall, who came out shivering.
“Well, we must get across,” Niall said. “So we’d better start at once. We must load everything of any weight onto the horses. They are better swimmers than we are and won’t be pulled under so easily. We should also loop a line around the horns of our saddles in case we lose our grip. Our fingers will soon grow numb in that water. It would be frozen if it weren’t moving so fast.”
The companions removed their cloaks, boots, swords, and daggers, and made them fast to their horses’ saddles. They also redistributed some of the pack horse’s load to the other horses, taking care to bind the oil cloths tightly around their bundles of food. Once across, they would still have a long way to travel before they reached the Rangers in the Green Hills. So they could not let their food be lost or ruined in the river. They had no time to lose in hunting, which would be difficult this late in the year. Even the bow of Mahar needed a target.
Once their gear was secure, Jalonn decided that Agarwen should go first, followed by Evénn and the wolf, then Jalonn with Argos, and Niall with the pack horse. Arden would wait on the nearer shore until they were all across. Before she left, Jalonn took the hundred foot long coils of rope each of them carried and tied their ends together. That looked to be enough rope to span the river. Arden tied his end to a tree and Agarwen looped the other around her saddle horn. Once on the other side she would secure her end, so that all who came after her would have a life line to hold on to as well as their horse.
As she walked into the river beside her horse, the cold shock of the water drove the air from her lungs in a rush. Bufo resisted. She did not want to go in, but Agarwen did not pause or look back. She took a deep breath and coaxed the horse forward into the stream. In a moment they were swimming. Soon her head and Bufo’s were all that could be seen above the water. The others watched from the shore. Agarwen made good progress and was soon far out into the stream, but the force of the current was bearing her downstream much faster than they had expected. Niall grabbed the two spare coils of line from the pack horse, while Arden untied the end of the rope from the tree. Working quickly, they bent the ropes together, and hitched the new end to the tree once again.
By the time Arden had coiled down the extra rope on the bank Evénn was already in the river, encouraging Moonglow to swim after Agarwen. He was low in the water, too, on Moonglow’s upstream flank. The wolf was swimming on the downstream side, but soon began to outdistance them, as if trying to overtake the Ranger thirty yards ahead. Agarwen was nearly halfway across when Jalonn and Argos plunged in, with Niall and the pack horse not far behind them.
Arden watched them from the shore, shading his eyes against the glare on the water, but he was worried. The coil of rope at his feet was diminishing rapidly, and Agarwen was only now about three quarters of the way across. She was not going to make it. The river was too swift. Once the rope became taut, the current would swing her and the others helplessly back towards the shore they had just left. They would have no choice but to let go and take their chances.
There was only one thing Arden could do. He had to follow them downstream, hoping to gain back some of what the river had taken. He untied his end of the line, picked up what was left of the coil, and mounted Impetuous. As he rode along the riverbank, his eyes shifted constantly back and forth between Agarwen, gauging her progress, and the banks of the nearer shore, in search of another tree to use as an anchor. Although he was paying out the rope more slowly now, he did not yet know if there was enough.
At last Agarwen was near the bank. He could tell that Bufo was no longer swimming. The mare had found her depth on the stony bottom, but her struggle was not over. Though Arden could hear nothing but the river, he imagined Agarwen shouting to her horse, urging her on against the current and cold and the pull of the rope behind her. The line grew more and more taut. Slowly he and Impetuous entered the stream, half willingly, half dragged. The river’s icy grasp made him shudder. An instant later the pain of the cold seemed to crush his bones. Soon the water was above his horse’s withers, and Arden could feel him battling to keep his footing. When there were perhaps two dozen feet of line left, he threw another loop around his saddle horn. His eyes never left Agarwen.
Numb, shivering, and weak, she and Bufo came stumbling up the bank. As they staggered together towards the nearest tree, Agarwen had to watch herself walk because she could not feel her feet. Only her grip on the mare’s bridle kept her from falling. The weight of the rope was terrible, and each step a day’s labor. Agarwen shouted. She pleaded. She promised. Bufo neighed, wild eyed, and tossed her head furiously. By insensible inches the tree crept closer.
As soon as Arden saw Agarwen make her end of the rope fast to the tree, he began backing Impetuous out of the river. His hooves slipped on the stones, but step by step they climbed backward up the bank. Once they were out, he wheeled his horse around and leaped from the saddle. It was their turn now to replay the scene they had just witnessed, fighting the current and the rope to reach a distant tree, not ten feet from the shore. But they were not yet frozen by the river, and Impetuous was young, huge, and strong. Arden threw a hitch around the bole of the tree. Both ends of the rope were now secure. They had done it.
Arden now prepared to cross himself. He removed his quiver and secured it to his saddle, making sure that it was tightly sealed. The well-oiled leather and oiled silk lining would keep out any moisture. As he was strapping it down, he watched the progress of the others. Niall and the pack horse were just past the middle of the river. Jalonn and Argos were about forty yards ahead of him, much closer to Evénn, who was nearly across now, only about fifteen yards from the shore. He would be there in a minute or so. Agarwen was sitting beneath the tree, her head hanging down. She seemed exhausted. The wolf stood beside her, shaking a great spray of water from his fur. He was looking back at the river.
Then the wolf’s head came up and swung around to stare over his shoulder into the woods upstream of them. Slowly he slowly turned and lowered his head. Even from his side of the river Arden could see his ears go back. Agarwen noticed nothing until the wolf broke into a run towards the forest. She raised her head and looked just as two mounted men burst from the trees not thirty yards away and came galloping towards her, the first armed with a bow, the second a drawn sword.
They were not Rangers, or soldiers of the dragon, but hunters, men who wandered the wilds trying to track down Rangers and collect the price on their heads. Normally they were not so bold as to attack a group of Rangers who outnumbered them, but they had seen them crossing the river and decided to risk it while more than half the party was still in the water. With one isolated and exhausted on their side, they needed only to kill her and then turn their bows on those crossing the river. They could collect the bodies downstream later. The one still across the water was too far away.
As Agarwen rose and went stumbling for her horse, the wolf made straight for the first of the riders. The gap between them closed rapidly, and the wolf’s sudden leap at the head of the first hunter’s horse caused him to rear and kick. The wolf fell stunned to the ground, but the rider lost control of his horse and could not shoot. As he was wrestling with his mount, the second hunter rushed past him, straight at Agarwen, who was struggling to pull her sword free from its scabbard, which was lashed tightly to Bufo’s side.
Just in time she freed it, but could do no more than block the heavy blow from the rider who slashed at her from a dead run. Her sword flew from her hands as the impact knocked her to the ground. Agarwen rolled over and scrambled to recover her sword, but too late. The rider had spun around and was upon her before she could reach it. She dodged his second blow and tried to rise, but the hunter pivoted his horse’s haunch into her, and sent her sprawling once more. Now he was between Agarwen and her sword. He drew his own back to thrust it between her shoulders, just as a long arrow appeared between his own. Dropping his blade, he stiffened and raised one grasping hand to his breast. He looked desperately around for his attacker. There was blood on his lips. His eyes came to rest on Arden standing on the Rheith’s other bank, far beyond any bowshot the hunter had thought possible. The bow of Mahar was held low and half drawn in his hands, another arrow already notched. Astonishment showed in his eyes as their light faded. He fell to the ground.
Agarwen wasted no time, but seized the hunter’s sword from the ground beside her. Yet even as she did so, Evénn reached the bank, rising from the Rheith, now mounted on Moonglow. The clear, icy waters of the river sparkled and shone in the morning sun as they ran off them. The sword of adamant flashed out from its sheath at Moonglow’s side, and the sound of his neighing as he climbed the shore towards the second hunter echoed above the din of the rushing river. Evénn reached him in an instant and struck him from his horse. When he turned to look at Agarwen, she let down her guard.
“I am unhurt,” she said, holding up her hand. “See to the wolf. I must check the rope.”
Evénn leaped from Moonglow and ran to the wolf. He knelt down and examined him with his free hand, but he never took his eyes from the woods for more than a moment. There may yet be other hunters there. He stroked the wolf and murmured to him. Finally the wolf lifted his head to look first at Evénn, then Agarwen further down the river bank. Satisfied, he put his head back down briefly, then slowly rose to his feet and stood next to Evénn, who remained beside him peering into the trees until Agarwen approached.
“My thanks to you both,” she said. “I was careless.”
“The chill of those waters is enough to dull anyone’s senses. We must look after one another if we wish to get very far. Come let us help Master Jalonn from the water. He’s looking even grimmer than usual.”
“That was an astounding shot Arden made,” Agarwen said as they walked to the water’s edge, leaving the wolf to keep watch. “Despite all our practice, I can hardly believe it.”
“The bow still surprises me. Few ordinary bows could have even spanned the stream, let alone struck their target effectively. I confess I have never found its limits.”
“I’m glad it cannot be used for evil.”
“If only more things were so,” said Evénn as they came to Jalonn who was leading his horse from the water. Argos stood already on the shore, shaking himself.
“Well, Master, here you are at last,” she said.
“Somewhat worse for the swim, maybe,” Jalonn replied. He looked at her carefully. “At least you are unharmed. That was a near run thing. The wilds are not as empty as we could wish. Two of us should have crossed together. Next time we’ll be more careful.”
Jalonn and Evénn left her there to wait for Niall, while they went to examine the bodies. Now that the danger was past, Agarwen grew cold again, from her marrow to her sodden clothes. The sun was no help at all. Niall looked as miserable as she felt when he came laboring up the bank. His lips were blue, and he was muttering curses about the benefits of cold water for the soul. He passed her the reins of the pack horse and Graymane, his own.
“Master Jalonn says we’ll have to be more careful next time,” she said.
“Oh, next time,” he answered, bent over, gasping for air. “What joy. I can hardly wait.”
After Niall caught his breath, they signaled to Arden, who cast off his end of the rope and rode into the water. The force of the stream swung him and Impetuous across the river in a great arc. At times the tension between drive of the current and the tautness of the line threatened to pull Arden under, but he clung fiercely to Impetuous’ mane, and the two arrived in well under ten minutes.
With all now safely east of the Rheith, Jalonn said, “We must get back into the woods. We've been in the open too long.”
“What shall we do with the hunters’ bodies and their horses?” Niall asked.
“Give the dead to the river. Take their food and arrows. Strip the horses and let them go.”
“Aye,” he replied. “Come, Arden, lend me a hand. It will warm you up.”
Soon they were on the move again. For the rest of that day they walked their weary horses south through the woods along the river. They were cold, wet, and miserable, with a steady northwest breeze on the back of their neck. Jalonn was guiding them here. He knew the lands east of the Rheith and north of the Road quite well. Ahead were some rocky hills that could shelter them somewhat from the wind, and back about a mile or so in a narrow valley were nestled a long deserted stone house and barn, where they could build a fire and rest while their clothing dried.
On foot they could not reach it before night, but darkness would cover them while they crossed the open plain between the woods along the Rheith and the hills some five miles away. In this way they would also shorten their journey to the River Valané, which flowed ten miles southeast of the hills and which they intended to follow up into the Coastal Range.
By the time dusk gathered like a mist over the plain and the shadows began to deepen in the woods, they stood looking southeast towards the hills of which Jalonn had spoken. The last rays of the sun were just glancing off the bare and rocky top of the highest of them. In a moment it was gone. The companions rode slowly over the plain in the growing darkness through winter grasses that hissed and waved in the breeze of their passing. Jalonn, who had ridden ahead to scout the way, was hardly to be seen, and the wolf and Argos who had run beyond him had vanished entirely. Arden was in the rear, his bow in his hand. He stopped briefly now and then to listen for pursuers now that they had left the cover of the trees. But all he could hear was the night wind in the grass and the water in the many streams which ran down to the Rheith or the Valané.
He also kept hearing in his mind the one word with which Evénn had greeted him as he came out of the river that morning. Faith. The long shot he had made stunned him even more than it had Agarwen. For he had stared without hope over that broad stream at the distant hunter who was about to kill her. Once more it had seemed to him that he was in the wrong place when his friends were in need; and, with all the scene of the swimmers in the river, and of Agarwen alone with the hunters on the shore, displayed before him, he knew that Evénn could not arrive in time to save her. Yet even as he had thought this, Mahar’s fight with the dragon and their weeks of practice with the bow flashed through his mind.
Because he could do nothing else, he had drawn the bow and loosed the arrow, watching it arc unerringly through the sky to its mark. He remembered the expression of the hunter as he saw him far off, another arrow at the ready, and he had wondered if it mirrored his own. Hours later, riding through the night towards shelter and warmth, while the river rolled the hunters’ bodies down to the sea, he thought of that look on the man’s face and of Evénn’s single word of greeting that morning. Perhaps desperation was the final faith of the hopeless.
Soon they came to the hills and Jalonn led them into a narrow valley out of which ran a noisy brook. Before long they came to a stone house without windows or door, but from what they could tell in the budding starlight, the roof was mostly intact. Jalonn went inside for a few minutes, then came out to say that it appeared no one else had been there for some time. While Niall and Evénn gathered firewood, Arden and Agarwen explored the woods nearby, but found no signs that they were not alone. Their horses they stabled in the remains of the barn.
Within the house they kindled a fire in the old hearth and huddled around it, grateful for the warmth and the chance to dry their clothes. Their first hot meal in days was also welcome. Despite the feeling of security fostered by the fire and the partial roof above them, that morning at the river had been uncomfortably close to disaster, and they took turns keeping watch, two at a time. All were drained from the crossing and the long day spent walking cold and wet. Even Evénn slept in his turn.
For the watchers the night was still and silent, with nothing to report as each pair relieved the pair before them. By midnight the heavens were awash with stars blazing in the cold, clear air, and across the zenith of the sky a broad, gleaming belt spread like the wake of some gigantic ship that sailed forever unseen through the deeps of the night. Several hours later a shower of falling stars lit up the sky streaking westward before flaring out. In the gray silence before dawn the morning star shone out eastwards, beckoning them onward. After another hot meal, they mounted their horses and left the small comforts of the empty house. By the time the sun was fully above the horizon they had crossed the open ground between the hills and the Valané, where they turned east once more.
Their hope was that they had encountered the hunters by chance, that no others were on their trail or watching them from the woods close by. Yet they went more slowly and with greater caution. Argos and the wolf scouted ahead, with Evénn or one of the Rangers close behind them; another of the companions lingered in the rear and off to the side of the path the others were taking, to make sure they were not being followed. This made their days longer than before, and each night they set a watch. They lit no fires. For the first few days they spoke in whispers and only at need.
In the fields beyond the narrow belt of trees lining the Valané they glimpsed farmsteads or, more rarely, a village. Homeless and unwelcome in their own country, the Rangers shunned the risks they posed and kept out of sight. If a town or farm was particularly large or near the river, they passed it in the middle of the night rather than waiting till daylight, when someone might have an errand in the woods, seeking firewood or game. Only Jalonn could remember being openly welcomed as a Ranger. For the others, it was rare that any would dare speak to them or do business with them openly. There were too many who watched the doings of their neighbors.
Three days after they left the stone house the rain began again. On the fourth day it turned to snow and continued, by turns light and heavy, for three days after that. It spread a beautiful, silent blanket over the woods and fields beyond them, which blazed like silver in the rare minutes of sunshine they had each day. Yet it was not a loveliness without peril. Not even Rangers could avoid leaving tracks in snow. No one who stumbled upon their trail, whether hidden friend or open foe, would think that the tracks had been left by troopers or hunters, who had no need to travel in secret through the woods along the river in this wretched weather. It could only be Rangers or other outlaws.
After noon on the third full day of snow, Arden was scouting in the rear, on the watch for any sign of pursuit. There had been none so far, but the fear kept nagging at him that it was only a matter of time before someone found their tracks and informed on them. The discovery would call forth several dozen troopers and their wolves at once, while the word spread down the roads to the east that a party of Rangers was on the move nearby. More troopers would then converge on them from several directions.
Every time he crossed the trail they were unwillingly blazing through the woods, Arden cursed under his breath. To him it seemed as broad and well-marked as the Great Road itself. He found it even more vexing that over the last few hours the day had grown warmer and the snow had all but stopped. The odd tiny flake drifted here and there, catching the light like motes of dust, barely cold enough to keep from dissolving into mist. Around him the alders and maples were shedding their coats of frost. He cursed again, wishing it would snow again, much more heavily than it had done for the last two days, enough to bury the tracks that betrayed them. To him it did not matter that so much snow would also make their journey harder. In his frustration he recalled that some people believed god tested the faithful, and put obstacles in their path for them to overcome, but he felt that he and his people had been tested quite enough by the dragons as it was. He wondered what Evénn would say to that. Probably his answer would be another elvish riddle. Raynall, he decided, would only laugh at him and ask if he thought himself so important that god spent his time devising tests of his patience and slender faith.
Out across the fields to the south the sun flashed out briefly from between the clouds. Among the branches, dark against greyish white clouds and the blaze of the sun, the faintest arcs of indigo and violet became visible. Arden stopped in the middle of the Rangers' trail and sat gazing at them for several minutes, looking from different angles to see if he could catch sight of more colors. He listened while he paused there, far enough behind the others that he could not hear them at all. The boughs creaked in the sparse breeze, and the Valané murmured placidly on. There was nothing else. After a few minutes Impetuous shook his head with a snort, and looked back at him, to ask if they were going to stand there all day freezing. Arden started him moving again.
“Is the rainbow supposed to be a sign?” he asked the world with a smirk. “If we live through this, I’ll make sure it gets into the song they’ll write.”
Arden laughed to himself, but with the sight of their deep tracks in the snow his worries returned. Yet now something seemed odd. He reined Impetuous in and bent low over his neck to inspect the snow more closely. What he saw was all wrong. He dismounted and knelt down. For a moment he could not believe what he saw, but it was there clearly before him. He looked around to check the other tracks, ran up the path his companions had plowed ahead of him, then back down it for some distance. Their tracks were going the wrong way, as if they had come from the northeast and were moving southwest rather than precisely the opposite. He had never seen anything so strange before.
He was still standing there perplexed, his arms folded, when he heard someone coming back down the trail, the muffled triple beat of a horse cantering through the snow. Presently Niall came riding through the trees. A dozen feet away he stopped, a look of inquiry on his face. Niall swung his leg over Graymane’s neck and slid off his back.
“I’m here to relieve you,” he said, coming up to him. “What is it?”
“Look at our tracks.”
“I know," Niall replied. What a splendid trail we've left.”
“No. Look at them.”
Niall stared down, then up at Arden. He, too, knelt to study them more closely. He walked back and forth along the path in the snow, eyes on the ground, one gloved hand over his mouth, the other perched on his hip.
“They’re going the wrong way,” he said at last, incredulous.
“Yes, they are. I've never seen the like. What do you think?”
“I don’t know what to think,” Niall answered. “I checked the tracks I just made on my way here, and they are facing in the proper direction. They come from up ahead where the others are.”
“Before you arrived I was beginning to think I had lost my way and gotten turned around, though the sun was all wrong for that.”
“No, we’re all heading the right way. It’s just that our tracks … aren’t. Do you know where it starts?”
“I’ve crossed them several dozen times in the last three hours, but I wasn’t looking that closely at them. Mostly I was regretting that they were there at all. They will lead – or would have led – anyone straight to us.”
“I know what you mean,” Niall nodded. “I’ve been thinking that all day. So has Jalonn. After you relieved him three hours ago, he said that with all this snow we might as well put up a sign telling the enemy where we are. He was muttering about it for quite a while, but finally he stopped.”
“Do you think Jalonn used an enchantment?” Arden asked after a pause.
”Well, nothing else explains this, and who else could it be? You certainly didn’t do it. Agarwen wouldn’t know how, and the spells I know all have to do with horses.”
Until this moment he had been unaware that Niall knew enchantments of any kind.
“What about Evénn?” Arden went on. “He could’ve done it.”
“Yes, but he’s been riding up ahead with Argos and the wolf all day. It has to be Jalonn. I did notice that after he finally stopped muttering to himself, he seemed rather pleased, and a number of times he stopped and stared back this way for a while, wearing that smirk of his.”
“That sounds like him,” Arden said. “He would do it and say nothing, but I’ve never heard of him casting spells before.”
“True, but he is one of the Masters. He is often very quiet about the things he does.”
“Well,” said Arden, mounting his horse, “I shall have to ask him. To see the tracks leading the other way is a comfort, but we need to be sure that one of us is responsible. How far ahead are they?”
“By now, probably at least ten minutes at a quick walk. Have you seen anything else?”
“No, aside from the tracks, everything has been quite as it should be.”
“Good,” said Niall. “I’ll see you in a few hours. Let me know what Jalonn says.”
“I will,” Arden replied and urged his horse to a canter. Several times along the way he stopped to look back down their trail. All the tracks, including his own, led back the way he had come. He shook his head. Once he concentrated and stared closely at the tracks. After a while the spot he was studying seemed to blur and shimmer. For an instant he thought he almost saw them the right way around. Jalonn had done his work well, if one who knew what was real and what was not could barely pierce the illusion, and then only briefly.
Arden resumed his pursuit of the others. Impetuous responded eagerly, glad to be moving again in the cold. He had been impatient of all the stops Arden had made to peer at their tracks, snorting and tossing his head with his eagerness to be gone. Whether by the scent on the wind or whether his eyes were not deceived by the spell, the horse knew which way their companions had gone and wished to follow. Arden kept him at a canter, but could tell he wished to run to catch them.
But, though Arden checked Impetuous’ pace and kept his own eyes on the improbable path before them, his mind was deep in thought and far way. The rainbow he had seen through the sunlight and falling frost was not an illusion. He could not touch it, could never reach it, and it was visible only from a certain perspective: move but a little to one side and it was gone. Yet it was real. It was there. Rainbows he had often seen, and moonbows, too, a few times. In his youth by the sea, when the wind blew the spray up and backward from the crest of a breaking wave and the light was just right, a bow of many hues would shimmer just above the wave. Sometimes in those days as the green curl of a breaker was rushing him to the beach he had tried to glance over his shoulder to see the arc of colors. He never had, though he knew it was there.
How different were the tracks in the snow. For they appeared real, but were not. The real tracks of their horses were there in fact, no doubt to be seen clearly by one able to look beyond the illusion created by the enchantment. As the weaver of the spell, Jalonn was surely not deceived by it. Of that Arden was certain. Evénn could likely see through it also. A spell of great power and subtlety would be needed to deceive him.
Arden thought of the shot he had made back at the river. He had stared over the water, feeling utterly helpless. His eyes and mind had told him that he could not hit, or even reach, the mark he intended. Yet even as he released his arrow at the hunter beyond the Rheith, his heart knew he would make the shot, no matter how impossible it seemed. Was this discernment between what appeared to be so and what was so the faith – or some part of the faith – that Evénn and the others spoke of?
Up ahead the woods thinned to a small clearing, bright with snow even under a sky that had turned mostly gray again. Across his path at the far side of the clearing a narrow brook ran down to the Valané on his right. Arden saw Jalonn, Evénn and the pack horse entering the woods again beyond the clearing. Impetuous neighed a greeting and Arden allowed him to break into a run to overtake them. Jalonn and Evénn rode on a bit until they were completely under the trees, then stopped to wait for him. As he splashed through the shallow waters, Arden glanced up the stream and saw that both banks were lined with dense blackberry brambles. He smiled at the thought, and was still smiling when he caught up to the others.
“Why do you smile?” Evénn asked.
“The blackberries,” Arden answered. “To be here at midsummer.”
“Yes,” Evénn said as he looked at them, “it would be quite pleasant.”
“It is,” Jalonn said. “The air along this stream – the Bramble, as the folk who live nearby call it – hums on summer days with honeybees that hover about and visit the berries. When I was a young Ranger – several years before I met you, Arden – I used to enjoy sitting beneath that tree right over there in the late afternoon. The shadows would grow long, the bees would hum and dance, and I would eat the blackberries I had gathered. I regretted leaving here, even to go to the City with Mahar.”
Arden regarded Jalonn with surprise. He would not have guessed that Jalonn had once sat at his ease beneath a tree on a hot summer day eating blackberries he had picked himself. It scarcely fit with his impression of the man, gray, ironical, dour, and disciplined. This was the second surprise from Jalonn today. The Master noticed his expression.
“That was before,” he said with a shrug. “We were all different then.”
Arden saw Evénn look down and smile the pained smile of one who knew a sorry truth for what it was. Then the elf turned and looked down the trail ahead of them, blazed only now by Agarwen, who had ridden ahead to scout with Argos and the wolf. Seconds later Argos came back down the path, bounding high through the snow on his long legs. He stopped next to Arden, rose up on his hind legs, and leaned against the horse, who looked back at him. So tall was the wolfhound that his paws reached the saddle. Arden caressed his shaggy, black head as the dog’s tail whipped madly back and forth. The glee of Argos at seeing Arden restored their humor.
“Master Jalonn,” said Arden, “I noticed something peculiar before Niall relieved me, and he and I both think we should ask you about it.”
“And what would that be?”
“Our tracks are going in the wrong direction.”
“What tracks?”
Our tracks through the snow. They look as if we were going the other way – or as if someone has cast a spell. Was it you?”
“I don’t know what you mean, Arden. I see no tracks.”
Arden glanced at Evénn, but grew suspicious when he saw only laughter in his eyes.

“I don’t see any tracks either, Arden,” he said, lifting his head and gazing past Arden.
Arden looked back. The snow behind him as far as he could see, back to the stream and beyond it across the clearing and into the trees, was as pure and unmarked as if it had just fallen. There was no trace of their passing that way. Behind him he heard a sound beginning that he had seldom heard before, the sound of Jalonn laughing loud and heartily and long. When Arden turned again, he saw the Master’s face transformed by pure mirth. He saw his face as it might have been in another world. This was the third time Jalonn had surprised him today. Evénn joined in his laughter.
“Forgive me, Arden,” Jalonn said, struggling for once with his composure, “for making game of you. Evénn and I knew you would notice the tracks. Yes, I cast the spell, the first spell in any case. Making the tracks disappear completely was the elf’s idea, and his doing, not mine. But when the trail began vanishing behind you as you asked your question, what could I do but play along?”
Arden smiled in spite of himself, then laughed. The Master and the elf joined him. All the cold, drear wood rang with their laughter. Far ahead, Agarwen heard it echoing through the trees and reined Bufo to a halt. A moment later the wolf came trotting back and stopped alongside her. He stood with his head and ears up, listening. Agarwen shook her head in disbelief at their foolishness. Laughter in so still a place was not wise, but the pure delight of it lifted from her heart the burden of days of cold and silence and the thought of the truceless war to come. She could not help but smile.
The echoes soon died. The woods were quiet again. She urged her horse onward.

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