03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 11.2

The next morning Arden and Hansarad headed up to explore the passes. At first Argos and Hansarad’s wolfhound, Alastor, bounded up the mountain before them, but when not quite a mile had gone by the snow was too deep even for their long legs, and they fell back to follow in the broad furrow the horses plowed through the snow. In another two miles the snow was up to the horses’ withers, and rapidly rising. Now the horses seemed to be swimming rather than walking, and sweating from the labor of forcing their way through it. Arden turned to Hansarad.
“Stop” he said. “This is already too much for them. You were right. Even reaching the pass directly above us is hopeless. Getting through them is impossible. What of the others?”
“This is the lowest of the three passes nearby.”
“I see. Then we shall have to seek another way. Thank you for indulging me.”
“It is nothing. If the passes were open, that would clearly be the best route to take. Your road will be harder now.”
“The trouble is that the Green Hills only grow taller the further south they go, while to the north the snows will only be deeper. All the passes for hundreds of miles will be closed.”
“Except for the roads.”
“Yes, except for them,” Arden frowned. “Precisely the way we did not wish to go seems to be the only way we can go. A pity there is no path under the mountains.”
“Evil tales are told, Arden, of those who delve too deeply beneath the mountains. Journeys in the dark seldom come to a good end.”
“Our journey is already along a dark road, the end of which none of us may live to see.”
Hansarad laughed.
“You always say such cheerful things, Arden," he said. "Have you always been this way?”
“We were all different once, Hansarad.”
For that Hansarad had no answer. The passes over the mountains, the route of secrecy was closed to the companions. Hansarad turned his horse to go, but Arden did not move. For ten minutes he sat there without a word, staring up the slope at the snow, up through the dark trunks of the pines that led, one after another, up and up to the summits of these green mountains. Beyond them was an open blue sky that looked down upon the coastlands of Narinen. In summer or early fall he could have easily climbed to the mountains’ heights to look out upon the shimmer of the sea from afar, and perhaps even glimpse the distant, gleaming walls of the City. From so far away it would have been beautiful still. But he could not go that way. He looked back at Hansarad, who was all patience.
“Let’s go back,” Arden said, nudging his horse around. “There’ll be much to discuss.”
The way down was easier, as they retraced their steps through the snow. In places their horses slipped on the ice beneath it, so they dismounted and led them back to the camp. When they drew near, several of Hansarad’s Rangers appeared from the woods to meet them. Hansarad merely shook his head, and they vanished once more. Entering the caverns again they found the others sitting around the long table with three other Rangers who were at leisure that morning. Arden noticed that one was the guard he had passed the night before. They nodded to each other, but she was young and he did not know her. Because of his long absences in the west, many of the young ones were unknown to him. Others had a familiar look about them, reminding him of children he had known or seen, and they seemed to recognize him.
Jalonn was speaking as they walked in. Along with the others at the table he looked up, but addressed them with no more than a glance. Their fruitless morning was reported with another shake of the head. Jalonn continued the tale he was telling.
“In those days, Evénn – it is over twenty years ago now – we had a second camp hidden in the Skia Hills far to the west, about a hundred miles southwest of Reddina. At times there were as many as three hundred Rangers there. Though it did not survive long, for a time it gave us a second place of refuge after the dragons came. Rangers like Arden, whose duties lay to the west could stop there for supplies or to report on the enemy, but it was not so well hidden or fortified a place by nature and the crafts of men as the Valley is. Perhaps it could have become so, but that was not to be.
“One day an apprentice and his master were returning from a journey near the city of Sufra by the western sea. They had been out for over two years and the completion of the young man’s training was nearly at hand. His next journey would have been his first on his own. But the dragon’s men picked up their trail, a large group of them, and they waylaid the young man and his master in a narrow place. There was a running fight through the woods and hills; the action was sharp and bloody. In the end the master was slain, as were their dogs, and all but three of the troopers. The apprentice escaped with his life, though he had been wounded several times. He led the surviving dragon’s men away from the camp, and thought he had succeeded in killing them all over the next few days.
“Yet he was mistaken. Whether weak from his wounds or grief for his master, he was careless and did not make sure that all his enemies were dead before coming to the camp. Wounded though he was, the surviving trooper followed and learned our position. He was extraordinary, this man, for he slipped past our sentries when tracking the apprentice in, and eluded them again on his way out. Of so skilled a man, we could have made great use. In another time, or with a different heart, maybe, he could have been one of us. His feat was no mean one, though he was our enemy.
“Three months passed. Spring warmed into summer. The apprentice healed. A new master was assigned him and they returned to the field. Less than a day out from the camp they spied two regiments of the dragon’s troops marching towards the camp. Near their head, riding beside their commander, was the trooper whom the apprentice had thought slain. His carelessness became clear to him. He and his master turned and rode back as fast as their horses could run. On their arrival they discovered that the dragon’s troops were closing on the camp from every direction, eight regiments of them, four thousand men in all. But the Rangers’ camp was no fortress, built and equipped to stand a siege. Surrounded there, they could not long survive. No matter how many they killed, the battle would be more costly to them than to the enemy. Even victory would have been too dear. For the dragon cared not if he spent all his men’s lives to kill three hundred Rangers. And the dragon himself might come.
“So the commander of the Rangers chose to save those he could. He decided that two hundred of them would disperse into the forest without engaging the enemy and escape if they could; and he called for a hundred to stay and occupy the enemy for as long as possible. Among the first to volunteer was the apprentice. Within minutes they had their full complement. The commander of course stayed behind to lead his Rangers, and the elder Hansarad stood beside him as his lieutenant. If I told you the full tale of the courage of those men and women, all this day and night would not suffice for you to hear it. The two hundred vanished into the woods and most lived to see other days, if not better ones.
“The rest prepared themselves and their camp as best they could, but they did not sit and wait for the end. The commander dispatched small groups to use their bows and woodcraft to harass the enemy, to mislead them into swamps and thickets and valleys that had no outlet. All to gain time for the two hundred to escape by other ways and slip between the marching columns of the dragon’s men. Some lay hidden for hours watching the troopers pass by within yards of their places of concealment; others were caught and perished. None were taken alive to have their will and loyalty tested in the dungeons of the dragon. Most survived, though that was itself torment enough, to know the sacrifice their brothers and sisters had made for them to live.
“Yet no matter the skills of our men, or how they harried and deceived the troops of our foe, the eight regiments continued to advance. Two days and a half after the enemy first appeared, they surrounded the camp in a noose of steel that grew tighter with the hours. Our men withdrew and withdrew until at the last they were brought to bay. The assault of the dragon’s men began that night, a moonless and overcast night. The officers of the enemy led their men forward in wave upon wave, as careless of their men’s lives as they were of their own. Destroying us was all that mattered. Our Rangers fought at the barricades of stones and fallen trees which they had built. They fought on grim and silent, knowing their fate and knowing their need. They were able to repel a dozen assaults since the area they defended was small enough for their numbers.
“But the arrows of the enemy fell like rain in the night. One soon killed the commander – and the young apprentice beside him. Hansarad, the father of our young captain here, then took command. He was tireless, fearless, calm as a winter dawn. Always present where the action was worst. It is said that his sword shone despite the darkness, like a star come down from heaven to light their way to the other world. The courage of the Rangers and the sword of Hansarad long held the barricades despite the odds and the rain of arrows. Yet they knew they could not survive the night.
“About two hours before dawn the barricade was finally breached. A moment later coordinated resistance became impossible. The dragon’s troopers were everywhere, surrounding our men, cutting them off, trapping them, hewing them down and hacking them where they fell. The Rangers had bought their comrades all the time they could. Now it was time to settle the debt.
“And settled it was. All except for Hansarad and a single companion paid with their lives. Against the fury of their swords no enemy could stand. Despite wounds and weariness, they cut a path beyond hope and fear. First they fought their way to the barricades, then beyond them. Hansarad slew a high commander of the dragon, a mighty swordsman, in single combat, and took his horse. He slew another and took his horse for his comrade. At that the troopers shrank back, for terror of this man covered in blood and wounds, his sword shining red, his eyes burning like the fires of the dragon himself. This man, who would not be conquered or slain, accomplished feats worthy of song that night, if any poet could write such a song.
“The fear that parted the ranks for him and his comrade was like the homage paid to a king, before whom all draw back and bow as he passes. For an instant all was still. The fighting was over, the camp taken, but Hansarad and his Rangers had defeated the enemy. He and his companion set their spurs to the horses they had won and galloped off into the early morning darkness.
“None followed at first. The terror of the sword of Hansarad and the fell light in his eyes overmastered them. It spread like a contagion through their ranks; and among those who had not seen him or who had not yet come to the barricade of the camp it was the more dreadful. For rumor of the prowess of this Ranger, who had fought his way out with his companion, had gone before them, gathering strength as it went. Hours passed before any would obey the commands of their officers to pursue the fugitives. When they did give chase, they could find no sign or track to guide them. Like ghosts doomed to walk the night, the two vanished with the coming of the day.
“Among us the story is told because Hansarad’s comrade survived. He himself spoke of what happened only to the Masters of the Rangers, and he will answer no questions about that night. Honors were voted him, but he acknowledges them not. In a room in the Valley is stored a tapestry depicting his triumph. But he will not look upon it, nor permit it to be displayed. Among the enemy the story is also told. I have heard them tell it to each other in hushed voices around campfires and whisper it in smoky taverns late at night. Their victory, they know, was nevertheless our triumph, and they shudder to hear Hansarad’s name.
“And so, Evénn, that is why the elder Hansarad is held in such regard among us. His deeds stand high among all the deeds of Rangers through the many centuries of our service.”
“You tell his story worthily, Jalonn,” Evénn remarked after a long pause to consider what he had heard, “as if you were there.”
“I was,” Jalonn replied slowly in a voice laden with memory and emotion. “But Arden and young Hansarad have returned. Let us hear what news they bring of the passes.”
Arden looked at Hansarad, who gestured for him to speak.
“They are closed, Master Jalonn, just as Hansarad told us yesterday. We could not get within several miles of them. The snow is too deep. We must find another way, unless we wish to wait for spring.”
“That is three months away, even below us on the plains,” said Niall. “And who knows how much longer two thousand feet above us here? Or how much more snow is still to fall? Summer could be at hand before the passes are open. That leaves us only one other way.”
“The pass at Prisca,” said Jalonn.
“Indeed,” replied Niall with a look of resignation, as he turned to Arden, who frowned.
“Then if we have no other choice,” Agarwen said, “we must decide what we are to do. What can you tell us of Prisca, Hansarad?”
Hansarad took a seat at one end of the long table between Jalonn and Evénn. Arden leaned against the hearth, his arms folded. After a moment’s thought, Hansarad answered.
“We watch the town closely. Four Rangers are in the woods near Prisca at all times – two of mine and two from Baran’s camp south of the road. Every other day a pair leaves here: two days to get there through the mountains, two days on watch, then two days to get back, though at need it can be done in a day. The same is true of Baran’s Rangers. So six Rangers are always engaged on either side of the road, a pair going, a pair in place, and a pair returning. Baran and I receive reports every two days. One should be in later today, when Dara and Rachor get back. If we need to communicate, we shoot an arrow across the road with a message wrapped around it. We do not risk crossing the road. Too many eyes are upon it.
“The pass itself is heavily guarded. At least three companies of troopers are always present as a garrison. Another two come and go. One company patrols the Tusk road northward for twenty five miles or so, and another south halfway to the Great Road. So sometimes four or even five companies are in or near Prisca. Above the town stands the library tower, which commands an enormous view of the entire region, including the road, on both sides of the pass. That will be the greatest obstacle. You cannot come up that road unknown to the tower, unless you can make yourselves as invisible as your tracks. The watchers in the tower are also different from the others, a small separate unit composed of more intelligent and disciplined men under their own officers, though they still answer to the commander of the garrison.
“The commander himself is sharp, a hard man and very clever, and he has been there for a long time. In town he lets the soldiers do as they please when they are at leisure, but on duty they must obey promptly and without question. He will kill them without hesitation if they do not. Occasionally he will lead a patrol himself. Several times when we were shadowing a patrol under his command, I could swear he knew we were watching them from the forest. He would stop the column, ride to the side of the road, and stare up into the trees, to all appearances looking straight at us. The first time I saw him do this I was ready to put an arrow in his throat, and would have if he had moved one step closer to us. But, as I said, he is clever. He will not send his troops in here for us to kill until he knows how many we are and where we are. Hunters he sends with huge promises of gold, but none of them have returned to collect. We pay them in a different coin.
“To get through Prisca will not be easy. I don’t know how you will do it, and I have no suggestions to make. The town sits directly beneath the pass upon a high and narrow shoulder of the mountains, whose sides fall sharply for several hundred feet everywhere except where the road approaches. The slopes can be scaled, but it is a slow business and a dangerous one even for practiced climbers. You would of course have to abandon your horses if you attempted the climb. Nor could you get the dog or the wolf up those slopes. And even if you could reach the town unobserved, there would still be the tower to pass and all those troopers. For a scholars’ town, it is exceptionally well placed for defense.”
“So then it must be the road,” said Agarwen, “but how? We cannot go around it, we cannot sneak through, and we cannot fight our way through against those odds. I suppose that knocking on the gate and asking to be let through won’t work.”
No one responded. Arden continued leaning against the hearth, looking dissatisfied and angry. Niall leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. Jalonn’s head was down. With his eyes on the table, he stroked his chin thoughtfully. Evénn sat with his eyes shut and a far away look on his face, as if his closed eyes could see other places and other times. His hand rested on the wolf’s shoulder. Agarwen looked at each of them in turn, then at Hansarad who shrugged helplessly when she caught his eye.
Finally Evénn opened his eyes and leaned forward with the air of someone who has made up his mind to say something.
“I have an idea.”
They stirred and looked at him.
“But we shall need a large wagon.”

Four days later the watchers in the tower had their spyglasses trained on a wagon just beginning its lumbering ascent of the road up to Prisca and the pass to the coastlands. This was not the first time they had seen it. For two days now they had watched it crawl southward at an infuriating pace. Every three hours there was a halt to feed and rest the plump, shaggy carthorses, and at least once a day the right rear wheel fell off, causing another hour’s delay. Four of the five small figures they could see – two riding in the wagon and two on foot – appeared to be almost constantly arguing with each other. There was much waving of arms and pointing of fingers, punctuated by several gestures that even at so great a distance were clearly obscene. The watchers looked at each other with sour judgment. If the spectacle were not so contemptible, it would have been comical.
The fifth figure was mounted, armed with bow and sword. He always kept about a dozen yards behind the wagon, and held himself aloof from his companions’ disputes and labors. Clearly he was some ruffian, a hunter or former soldier of the fallen Republic, hired to protect the group from other renegades like himself. Only once did he leave his place. When the northern patrol out of Prisca marched into sight the day before, he had ridden slowly forward to sit athwart their path, bow in hand. Casually he loosened his sword in its sheath, then held up his hand as if ordering the column to halt. He was a bold rogue, whoever he was, the watchers decided. That much was sure. The commander of the patrol came up and spoke for a few minutes with the tall dark-haired man pointed to by the horseman. Satisfied, the officer let them pass. The column moved north. The wagon moved south. The tower kept watching.
This morning, after a night spent at the foot of the mountain, their large campfire bright and clearly visible from the heights, the travelers hitched their horses to the wagon once again and began the long winding climb up to the town. From time to time the wagon disappeared around a bend or behind the trees, only to reappear again a few minutes later. They would, the watchers knew, spend most of the day in this weary journey, and arrive before the gates of Prisca in the late afternoon. There they would wonder rather stupidly, as most who came that way did, why no better accommodations were to be had: as if, instead of an armed camp, Prisca were still the friendly town of scholars, eager to please the elite of the City of Narinen who had long sent their children there to study subjects the dragon deemed useless.
The watchers on high in the last standing bastion of Prisca’s library were all men of the western plains and mountains. Like their sires and grandsires before them, they gladly sold their crops and cattle to feed the people of the larger towns and cities, but did not want to know them, they held suspect any knowledge that was not at once useful, and were hostile to any wisdom unlike their own. The watchers in the tower looked down on the town below them, despising it as much for what it had once been as for the filthy, crowded ruin it was now, never thinking that they had aided the dragon in making it so.
After a little reflection they decided that the travelers climbing the road towards them had to be a party of merchants. They were not attired as soldiers or couriers of the dragon, and, except for that tall fellow on the horse, they were clearly an undisciplined lot of townsmen. They could not even hitch their sorry looking horses to their wagon properly. They hooked up everything in the wrong order, a sure sign of urban stupidity. Somehow, though, they had managed in the end, and started their ascent. Perhaps the rider, who was clearly at home on a horse, advised them.
By midmorning the merchants were close enough for the watchers to glimpse their faces. That of the rider was grim and determined, the close cropped beard on his chin was gray, and gray was in his hair also. His eyes ceaselessly scanned the road ahead and the woods to either side. His cloak was heavy and also gray, much like those worn by Rangers. That gave them pause.

The leader, presumably the merchant himself, was tall with dark hair and clean shaven. He seemed to pay attention to his surroundings, but talked incessantly to the other three, two of whom were grown men, the one a bit taller than the other, both bearded, but their cloaks were wrapped about them and their hoods pulled down over their eyes against the cold. They took turns driving the wagon. The third was smaller and of a slighter build. Beneath his hood they could just glimpse a young face with no beard. When not walking beside the merchant ahead of the cart, he was hastening back at the merchant’s insistence to check the wagon and the knots that secured the oiled canvas covering over the back. A boy, then, and likely the merchant’s son. Their clothes were stained with travel. Except for the guard’s horse, a very fine gray, the four that pulled the wagon were quite ordinary cart horses, though fat and old and a much on the sorry side. What goods the wagon held, the watchers could not guess.
In the early afternoon, the officer of the tower sent word down to the garrison commander that the travelers they had been observing were well up the mountain and would arrive an hour or so before sunset. Merchants were a rarity these days, since few had the gold the dragon demanded for the purchase of a merchant’s commission; and they were even more rare in the middle of winter. The commander of the garrison was of course always pleased to see them. For he exacted a duty before letting them through the pass. His officers were under strict orders to delay any merchants until he could extend his official welcome to them. Since he was often away from Prisca on patrol with the troops, merchants had been known to wait a week before he returned to greet them.
But the merchant approaching today suffered another mishap in the afternoon, which put off his inevitable meeting with the commander for nearly an hour. Just as his lead horses reappeared around a turn, the wagon abruptly stopped and one of its wheels came rolling into sight, pursued in all haste by the boy who overtook it just before it hit the low curb that bound the road’s edge. The sound of voices raised high in anger carried upward through the mountain air. The watchers shook their heads. By the time the wagon started moving again, it was clear they would not reach Prisca until nearly sunset.
And so it was that the wagon, its right rear wheel wobbling dangerously, came slowly around the last turn in the road and attained the shoulder of the mountain on which Prisca stood. With his son beside him, the merchant stood at the gate and knocked. The guards came forth to examine his commission and ask him his business. The sun, just touching the horizon now, cast his shadow in their eyes, and light gleamed around him and the boy, making it hard for them to get a good look at them or the men on the seat of the wagon behind them. The tall man sitting quietly astride his tall horse some yards further off, sword and bow crossed on his back, was little more than a shadow rimmed in fire. The guards did not like the look of him, from what they could see, but he remained motionless.
“I am but a merchant,” said Evénn, “newly returned, after much hardship, from the northern wastes of this land, with a shipment of rich furs and fine amber for General Machlor.”
“ ‘Machlor,’ you say, but anyone can say ‘Machlor,’ ” responded the sergeant in charge of the gate.
“I do assure you, sergeant, that I am not just dropping the general’s name to impress you. I am not such a fool. Nor are you. You would see through me the instant I did so. Clearly.”
“Listen, merchant. Your papers are in order, so I’ll let you pass. But don’t you waste your breath on me, and I shan’t waste mine on you. I’m not some farm boy or country boob, like them up in the tower, that you can cheat out of my boots by telling me how clever I am. I’ll let the captain know you’re here at last, and he will pass the word to the commander. We’ve been expecting you, you see.”
“Thank you, sergeant. You are most kind. But tell me, sergeant, is there a smith who can effect repairs to my wagon? We’ve had a bit of trouble with the wheels coming off it the last few days.”
The sergeant looked upon him with contempt.
“Up the street there,” he said waving his arm dismissively, “and around the bend, just past the last tavern on the right, but there won’t be nobody there to fix your wagon until the morning.”
“Then, since we’ll be staying in Prisca for the night, perhaps I can prevail upon you to join me in that very tavern later this evening for a pint of ale.”
“I doubt it,” the sergeant replied and returned to the guardhouse.
Evénn gestured to Niall, who shook the reins and the wagon lurched through the gate. Jalonn followed them in on horseback, holding the reins lazily in his left hand, his right resting on his hip. He kept his gaze fixed steadily before him, ignoring the soldiers beside the gate who for their part did not take their eyes from him and the gray Ranger’s cloak he wore.
The sergeant put that, too, in the report he scrawled hastily as he looked out the guardhouse window. His eyes followed them until the curving street took them out of his sight. Still he kept looking after them for a few minutes, scratching his head thoughtfully. He decided to bring the report to the commander himself once he had finished it.
When Niall brought the wagon to a halt in front of the tavern the sergeant had directed them to, Arden jumped down from his seat and took the lead horses by their harness. Niall knocked long and loudly on the doors of the smithy, but no one answered. As he returned, Arden was whispering into the ear of Impetuous and stroking the neck of Graymane, Niall’s horse, in harness beside him. Niall had to look closely at the four horses to recognize them through the deceits of the spell Evénn had woven about them, giving them the appearance of nags not long for the world. Niall, too, had spoken words of enchantment over them, only his were to make them more readily accept the harness to which they were not accustomed.
So far all had gone well. Hansarad had obtained for them a wagon from a farmer who dwelt west of the Tusk road not far from the Rangers’ camp. An old man who remembered the Republic, he was secretly friendly to the Rangers, a friendship that had grown stronger after the dragon’s men had carried off his only child, a daughter years before. With this wagon – in return for which they had pressed the old man to accept their pack horse – they had moved south along the road, making sure to look foolish and incompetent once they came within sight of the tower, arguing with each other in an exaggerated fashion and rigging one of the wagon’s wheels to come off periodically. The last time they had in fact nearly lost it over the side of the mountain. Agarwen’s mad sprint after it was only half an act. Niall laughed to himself as he thought of it, and he began unharnessing the horses. Since it was certain they were being watched, he had to give every appearance of their planning to stay the night.
He looked at Evénn speaking quietly to Jalonn over the back of Moonglow, whom Jalonn had been riding for the last three days. Agarwen held the horse’s head and kept a stealthy eye on the soldiers coming and going along the street in small groups. When he and Evénn were done, Jalonn took the reins from her and flipped them around a rail just outside the tavern door. He slid his bow into a boot on Moonglow’s right flank, and unslung his sword from his back. Then he sat down on a bench and leaned back. His sword he lay across his knees. Before closing his eyes, he nodded one last time to Evénn.
The elf came walking swiftly over to Niall and Arden, with Agarwen right behind him, her hood still up.
“We’re going into the tavern for a pint of ale,” he said. “That’s the natural thing to do, and we might learn something useful. How are the horses?”
“Impatient,” Niall answered, “but under control.”
“Keep your eyes open.”
“Someone’s got to,” Niall said, with a sidelong glance at Jalonn, who appeared to be dozing.
Evénn smiled and entered the tavern with Agarwen.
“Why does he get to have the ale?” Niall muttered playfully as he attended to the horses.
“It’s his plan,” Arden replied, working beside him. Niall chuckled.
Before long they had all the horses free of their harness and tied to the hitching rail. They kept watching the street as they worked. None of the passing groups of soldiers showed much interest in them, but several slowed down to steal a look at Jalonn, still reclining against the wall in the fading winter twilight. Niall was strapping bags of oats over the horses’ noses when the wind shifted and came blowing gently through the pass not a hundred yards away. Arden immediately raised his head to stare into the east and the oncoming night. He took a deep breath, then exhaled it in a great, slow sigh.
“Do you smell it, Niall?” Arden asked, almost dreaming.
“Yes. The sea. I smell it, too,” he responded, no longer wishing for a pint of ale since he had the salt air in his lungs. “It’s been so very long.”
Before Arden could say another word, they saw a group of soldiers approaching them, a young officer at their head. He looked quickly at Jalonn as he passed him, but the swordmaster gave no sign that he was aware of his presence, much less his attention. He stopped in front of Niall and Arden.
“Are either of you the merchant named Gallen?”
“No, sir,” Arden answered submissively. “He is in the tavern with his son.”
“Then go get him. I must inspect his commission.”
“But, sir, the sergeant at the gate – ”
“Go get him.”
“Yes, sir,” Arden said and headed for the tavern. Niall watched Arden go past Jalonn, who still did not stir, and through the door. The officer and his eight men were between Niall and the wagon, where his sword lay hidden under the canvas behind the seat. He had only a dagger at his belt. He did not like the feel of this.
“Lieutenant sir, if you please,” he asked, “is there somewhere we might stable our horses for the night? It was a long climb today and it is growing colder by the minute.”
The lieutenant examined him for a moment without a word, then answered.
“Perhaps, if your master’s commission is in order.”
“I trust it will be, sir.”
“The commander will be here presently and he will decide that for himself.”
“Yes, sir.”
Just then Jalonn stretched and yawned. The officer eyed him, assessing the threat he posed. With half his men he walked over and stood before Jalonn as he opened his eyes.
“Is this how you guard your master’s goods? Sleeping while they sit unprotected in the street?”
“Are we not among friends here?” Jalonn drawled his answer, adding a crooked, sleepy smile, which the lieutenant ignored.
“That looks like the cloak of a Ranger you’re wearing.”
“It is,” Jalonn answered, with one corner of his mouth still turned up.
“Where did you get it?”
“I am a hunter, lieutenant,” he said in a sharper tone that suggested he was not impressed by the young man’s rank. “Last spring I killed its owner in the Gray Mountains above the North Deer, and took his cloak, along with his head.”
The lieutenant was about to reply when Evénn came hurrying out the tavern door, wiping his mouth with his left hand while extending his right. A bright smile was on his face. Agarwen and Arden hurried out behind him, then drifted slowly over to stand beside the wagon with Niall.
“Lieutenant, lieutenant,” he cried, “thank you for coming to meet us. I was just on my way to see you and the commander. I paused only to quench my thirst after a long day wasted yelling at the idiot servants necessity has forced upon me.”
The young man took Evénn’s outstretched hand, and Niall smiled to hear the faint clink of coins as their hands clasped. Mollified, the lieutenant withdrew his hand, closing his fingers quickly over his palm as he did so.
“That is all right,” he said, his hand vanishing beneath his cloak. “But next time you would do well to pay your respects to the commander first, and not leave it to him to come seek you. Now, let me see your commission.”
Evénn slowly pulled back his cloak with the fingers of his left hand, revealing that neither sword nor dagger were at his belt, but rather a large purse which looked quite full. With his right hand he reached into a pocket in the cloak and withdrew a large piece of parchment folded in quarters.
“Here you are, sir, properly signed and sealed.”
The officer tried to read it in the moonlit gloom. Evénn waited, saying nothing. Finally the lieutenant motioned one of his men to bring a torch closer.
“It appears valid, correct in every way in fact, but it is almost twenty five years old. I’ve never seen one so old.”
“True,” Evénn said with pride, “I have had the good fortune to enjoy the dragon’s commission since I was a very young man. Few have been so lucky, I think.”
“Very few in fact. Be that as it may, the commander is on his way to greet you and welcome you to Prisca. He will discuss your commission with you further as well as the nature of your wares.”
“The commander does me an honor. I shall certainly mention his kindness – and yours of course – to General Machlor when I reach the City. By the way, sir, has my man here,” Evénn said gesturing at Niall, who took the chance to bow slightly, “inquired about stabling for our horses for the night? He is not good for much, that one, but he does take excellent care of the horses.”
The lieutenant looked at the four fat jades tied to the rail, and wondered how many feet a horse must have in its grave before it was too late.
“Yes, I can see that,” he answered dryly. “In fact he did inquire. I’m sure you can make some arrangement with the commander.”
“Thank you again. Now will you join me for a pint while we wait? If your duty permits you, that is.”
Evénn gestured invitingly towards the tavern door. After a moment’s thought, the officer agreed. Niall and the others began to relax as the elf whisked the lieutenant onward. His hand was on the door when a voice rang out.
“Stop, lieutenant. That man is no merchant.”


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