03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 12.1

Twelve

The voice was that of the garrison commander, who strode quickly up the street towards them. A dozen guards were at his back; by his side the sergeant they had met at the gate hurried to keep up on his much shorter legs. At the first sound of the commander’s voice, all the soldiers moving anywhere on the street also halted to see what was happening.
Evénn stopped with the tavern door half open, directed a quizzical look at the lieutenant, then turned to face the commander. He raised his eyebrows in the polite inquiry of surprise, but otherwise remained entirely relaxed. Jalonn, still as death, looked on with apparent disinterest. Arden stood watching with his arms folded across the back of the wagon’s seat, and his head propped upon them. One of Arden’s hands was out of sight. Agarwen was next to him, her back to the wagon. Niall moved slowly among the horses, speaking to them quietly, keeping them calm. The commander came to a halt a yard from Evénn.
“Is there some misunderstanding, commander, that I can clear up?” Evénn said with all courtesy.
The commander did not at first respond. Instead he looked at the sergeant, who nodded vigorously.
“He’s the one, sir,” the sergeant said. “There can be no doubt.”
The officer peered at Evénn, assessing him carefully from head to toe. He studied his face most of all.
“What is it, commander?” the elf said. “I cannot answer when you ask me no questions.”
“What is your name, merchant?”
“Gallen, sir. I deal in the treasures of the far north, fine furs and amber.”
“And where is your commission?”
Evénn pulled back his cloak precisely as before and again produced the document, which the commander read with some care, and a frown.
“And who are the Laindon and Marek I also see named here?” he asked. His eyes scarcely left the page, as if he felt the ink and formulaic words of the commission had more to reveal than the merchant.
“My father and uncle, respectively,” Evénn replied, his voice falling, “both long deceased.”
“Tell me, merchant Gallen,” he said. “How is it that one as young as you has a commission as old as this?”
“Oh, that. Sir, I can answer only that everyone in my family enjoys a youthful appearance that belies their years. The day my father died many years ago, he looked no older than I do this evening.”
The commander did not seem persuaded.
“But, commander,” Evénn went on when he saw this, “if there is some question about the validity of my commission, or about the goods I carry, we can easily remedy that. As for the one, I shall gladly wait here with my people until you can send to the City and confirm my commission with General Machlor; as for the other, please, I invite you to examine my wares yourself. As the briefest inspection will reveal, there are indeed furs in the back of my wagon.”
The officer ignored Evénn’s words and turned once more to the sergeant, who had never taken his eyes from the elf, but the Rangers heard the invitation to inspect the wagon quite clearly. It was Evénn’s way of telling them that he believed their ruse had failed.
“Well?” the commander said to the sergeant.
“He lies, sir,” the sergeant said with some force, which caused Evénn to open his mouth to protest.
“Silence, merchant Gallen, if that is your name. My sergeant has served here for many years. More than twenty five in fact. And he has the most uncanny memory for people and their faces. He is a surprisingly perceptive man, you see, and I have come to trust his word when he assures me of something. A little while ago he reported to me a very interesting tale: that a man had come to the gate this evening whom he remembered passing through twenty five years ago; that this man had not aged a day; and that he carried a merchant’s documents, when before he had a courier’s; and that a soldier accompanied him who looked for all the world like a Ranger. Intriguing, don’t you think? I thought so. I though it worth my attention.
“So you will stay here and we will inspect your goods, as you suggested, but not just as you suggested. You and your companions have many questions to answer. Oh, and the woman you have tried to pass off as a boy will also be questioned, though in a different fashion.”
Evénn looked at him impotently, his eyes wide, his mouth open, as if protest were beyond him. He played his role to the last.
“Lieutenant!” the commander barked.
“Yes, sir.”
“See to the wagon, and take the girl.”
“Yes, sir.”
The lieutenant slipped away from Evénn and walked over to the wagon. As he passed Agarwen, he paused and yanked back her hood. For a moment it seemed to her that he regretted what he thought was coming. Then he pointed at her and walked on. Several soldiers started forward. A few chuckles of relish were heard from the crowd of soldiers gathered to watch. At the rear of the wagon the lieutenant undid the lashing of the canvas cover. Arden glanced at Jalonn and saw the corner of his mouth rising, though he never took his eyes off the soldiers before him. His face was placid, his posture relaxed.
Then the lieutenant lifted the tarp. He bent to look within and his eyes widened in horror as Argos and the wolf silently sprang at him. He went down onto his back when Argos struck him in the chest, the hound’s teeth already closing on his throat, stifling his cry of panic and terror.
As the commander and sergeant began to turn around in surprise at the noise, a long knife flashed out from beneath Evénn’s cloak and buried itself in the commander’s heart. Before the sergeant could turn back again, Evénn had pulled a short sword from behind his back and cut him down with a swift slash to his throat. At the same instant Jalonn sprang to his feet, unsheathing his sword and striking in a single movement. The four soldiers in front of him lay bleeding on the cobblestones, their swords as yet undrawn.
One of the soldiers grasped Agarwen by the shoulder just as Argos struck the lieutenant, but she seized his hand in both of hers and twisted it away, bringing him to his knees in pain. At the same moment with a cry of rage Arden swept his sword from its hiding place and brought it down, severing the soldier’s arm at the elbow. With his other hand he tossed Agarwen her blade, then ran a second trooper through with his own. Agarwen darted forward to engage the other soldiers, while Arden turned back to grab the blade of Niall who was ducking in and out through the horses to elude the four soldiers who were after him. Two circled around the back of the horses, two to the front. But at a word from Niall, Graymane and Impetuous kicked out their hind legs, striking one of his attackers in the head and the other in the shoulder. The impact hurled them to the street. Arden called Niall’s name and threw him his sword, with which he made short work of the other two troopers.
The combat spread like fire. Jalonn and Evénn, aided by Argos and the wolf, were already engaging the other soldiers on the street. More of them had fallen, but now the shock of the sudden attack was gone. All the dragon’s men had their weapons drawn and knew they were facing dangerous opponents, not helpless merchants. A horn rang out in alarm down the street; other horns farther away were taking up the call. More and more soldiers came running from their barracks and guard houses. From the tavern, too, they spilled, with swords in hand, to answer the alarm.
First dozens came, then scores, until nearly the full complement of three companies, one hundred and eighty men, had arrived. They filled the street on both sides of the companions. More officers appeared, and saw the slaughter the companions were inflicting on the first soldiers present, who were attacking their enemies piecemeal and paying for their lack of discipline. The officers strove to impose order on the masses of others who hastened up behind them in confusion. They quickly recognized that Evénn and the Rangers were more than a match for individuals and small groups. They knew their duty was to guard the pass and hold Prisca; and they resolved to overwhelm these Rangers – as they now knew they must be – with their numbers in the narrow street. With troops approaching from both directions, the Rangers were trapped. There were no side streets here, and the way through the pass or back to the other gate was cut off. And so they drew their men up in order of battle. They would soon have these Rangers, their wolfhound, and their wolf. As the ranks formed, the few soldiers still engaged with the Rangers fell back.
The street grew quiet but for the sobbing of several wounded troopers. In the stillness before the next action, Evénn walked over to the wagon and drew out the sword Arden had seen him wield the night they had met. He rejoined Jalonn, who now sat astride Moonglow in the middle of the street. He looked calmly at the soldiers before him. The wolf paced back and forth in front of Moonglow. The way they had come was entirely blocked by nearly a hundred men.
On the other side of the wagon stood Arden and Argos, Agarwen and Niall. They, too, looked placidly upon the closed and uniform ranks of their enemy, who stood between them and the pass, between them and the dragon. The swords, spearheads, and armor of the soldiers opposite them shone redly in the light of the many torches the officers had ordered brought up to help dispel the night. The cobblestones were shining with blood.
No voice broke the silence. An hour passed for every minute they stood there. Every building in the town must have been emptied. The tavern keeper stood at his door for a moment, watching, his women peeking over his shoulders, but then he stepped back and closed the door. The sound of its bolt shooting home in the lock seemed quite loud. Agarwen looked around her. Niall and Arden stood on either side of her, motionless, their blades like hers dark with blood. Argos sat in front of Arden, licking his chops.
She had been surprised by Arden’s explosion of rage when the soldier had touched her. Though they had spent three years together in the wilderness and had fought together before, this was the first time she had ever seen him react like that. Yet after his initial outburst, the fury with which Arden fought had become cold and ruthless. Was it the memory of Sorrow lying dead in his arms, and the thought of what her killers might have done to her first that moved him so?
When she had been his apprentice, he had protected her as much as he could, but it had never seemed more than a master’s concern for his apprentice. Otherwise he had been friendly but distant, courteous but always reticent about his life and how he felt, beyond his hatred of the dragons. Or had his fury come from the recognition that, with the failure of their ruse, all else might be lost as well? She did not know. Nor, as she stood there waiting for the battle to begin, would she let herself consider other possibilities that flitted through her mind. Neither of the others looked at her, but she heard Niall whispering underneath his breath a spell to keep the horses calm.
Behind them someone moved at last. She could hear the sound of heavy boots taking a few steps on the cobblestones. Then a voice spoke, to her ears a harsh, grating voice. She glanced over her shoulder past Evénn and Jalonn, where she could see the figure of a short, burly man.
“My name is Ransor, captain of the garrison. I am now the commander here. Surrender. There is no escape.”
“Not likely,” Niall muttered nearby, and to Agarwen it seemed an apt enough response to both of the officer’s last statements. When Ransor received no other reply, he continued.
“I say again, surrender. Despite your skills, you will all die when I order my men to advance. Doubtless you will slay many of us – your own countrymen – perhaps even me, before the last of you falls. But fall you shall. I have seen it happen before. I was at Skia. We defeated you then. We shall do so now.”
At the officer’s mention of Skia, Agarwen saw Jalonn stiffen. He nudged Moonglow around to face the man and moved a couple of steps forward.
“Listen to me, captain,” he said in a fell voice. “I, too, was at Skia. My name is Jalonn, and I am the Master of Swords. I stood beside Hansarad when we cut a path through you that night, and I do not recall your face. Perhaps if you turned around, I might remember your back. Now get out of our way and live to tell your master I was here.”
Ransor said not another word. He had retreated a step when Jalonn named himself and Hansarad. He then turned his back to Jalonn and re-entered the ranks of his soldiers. As he did so he flung up his hand. Horns rang out loud and clear, echoing down the stony ways and off the walls of the town. The first three ranks of his men on either side of the companions began to advance. After two steps they charged with a huge shout that was taken up by those behind them. So loud was their cry it nearly drowned out the winding of the horns. They came at Evénn and the Rangers in a rush. The companions leaped forward to meet them in silence, all except Jalonn who raised his own battle cry in a clear voice that pierced even the din of his enemies’ voices.
“Hansarad for Narinen! Hansarad in the darkness!”
If swords alone could have won their escape from Prisca, none of the enemy could have withstood them. But this was not the chaos of a camp or city being stormed, where there were no lines, only a swirling confusion of small combats everywhere: this was a pitched battle of more than one hundred and fifty soldiers in ordered ranks advancing as one and under discipline against five who were penned in a narrow street. Every gap that Evénn and the others tore in their lines was filled in an instant as Ransor continually fed more men into the attack, giving his enemies no respite and crowding them into a smaller and smaller area.
When the companions were finally compressed into a tight circle around the wagon, Arden glanced up at the tower to see an arrow appear from the shadows above – without doubt from the watchers in the tower: it struck Agarwen in her left shoulder as she whirled and danced among her opponents’ swords, dodging and deflecting their blows while she slipped inside their guard and killed them. Their swords could not find her but the arrow did. Agarwen fell. Her sword clattered on the slippery stones beside her. Then Arden was there, standing astride her body and striking down two troopers who were about to kill her. And as he defended her, he wielded his sword with a fury redoubled.
But the arrow that struck Agarwen down was not the last to come from the tower. Others followed and only the constant movement of the companions defeated their aim. Some narrowly missed. Some hit the soldiers of the dragon who kept pressing the Rangers and stepped forward to attack at the wrong moment. From the corner of his eye, Arden saw one arrow strike the side of the wagon where he had stood a second before. Another, by chance, was deflected by the blade of Niall’s sword as it neared his throat.
This was the end. They could not last much longer. The thought was bitter in Arden’s heart, more than all the sorrow and memory it had known these thirty years, more than the rage it had felt when Evénn told him the elves had betrayed them all. And Arden cried out in a voice whose force seemed to tear his throat and lungs.
“Evénn!” he cried out, not knowing why he called him, but over the shouts and the clash of steel the elf heard him.
A moment later Arden felt his skin begin tingling, then a light grew behind him. He saw it shining on the swords of his opponents as he parried them and cut and thrust in return. He saw it gleaming on their faces and in their eyes, fierce with all the passions of life and death in battle. He saw it lighting up the stone walls of the buildings lining the street behind them. He saw it sparkling in the granite blocks of the library tower which loomed over the town. But it was not the red and gold light of the soldiers’ torches or the flames of the dragons he had seen at the Fall of the City. It was as if a vessel filled with centuries of moonlight, long hidden in a place of shadows beneath the earth, had been brought forth and uncovered. From it shone a silver radiance, splendid and pure, to rout the darkness and render it harmless. From second to second the light waxed brighter and stronger, until he heard Evénn shout out words in a language he did not understand. Then there was an explosion of searing brilliance.



When Arden opened his eyes, he found himself lying on a stone floor. Far off a pair of braziers full of smoldering coals hinted at a wall, and at times things he could not see glimmered dull and red in the meager light. Turning the other way, he saw up high a grayer darkness, as of moonlight seeping through thin clouds. After staring at it for a while, he could just descry the peaked line of the opposite wall, where the roof should rest, and above it the momentary gleam of stars in the shifting narrows between clouds. Apparently part of the roof had fallen in at some point. Wherever he was, it was much too large to be called a room, but he doubted that any building large enough to contain such a hall still stood in Prisca. If ever one had. It was very quiet and very cold. He did not like this at all.
Rising to his feet, Arden resolved to find the nearest wall and follow it until he discovered a door. After no more than a few steps, he noticed the room began to grow minutely brighter. Yet it was not the coals burning at the end of the hall that made it so. It was not the brightness of firelight at all, but like the light he had seen in Prisca. It waxed for a few seconds, then flashed brightly, allowing him a glimpse of windows high in the walls. It also revealed what was glimmering in the darkness: gold, more gold than he had ever imagined, lying in heaps everywhere, piles of coins and plate and chalices and furniture, works of art and statues.
One object he saw nearby he recognized. In that instant of radiance he had seen it standing on a broad dais reached by three wide steps. A high-backed chair of carved wood, inlaid with gold and ivory. He gasped at the sight. For he knew beyond all doubt what it was: the throne of the kings of Narinen, which his father had taken him to see when he was just a lad. No man had sat upon that throne for over a thousand years. Arden stood in the Hall of Kings.
Someone moved behind him and he spun around. At first he saw nothing. The hall was once more plunged in shadow; the white light did not flash again. Poised there, quiet, still, ready to spring at his unseen companion, Arden waited for him to move again. By and by he became aware of another sound, very faint, of someone breathing softly, not as one asleep breathes, but with the utter calm of perfect meditation. He kept waiting.
A long time he stood there. Or so it seemed. Minutes or hours were indifferent in this place of silence, unimportant, without reckoning. Slowly, slowly a new light grew in the Hall of Kings, unlike that of the braziers or the white light that came from outside. It was a dull, reddish, hellish glow. It added no gleam to the profusion of gold scattered around him. At most it was an intimation of light suggesting a presence directly in front of him, where he heard the sound of breathing. Then two eyes opened and looked at him. Arden knew them. Long and long ago he had looked into them. Large and red as blood in sunlight, the slit pupils a bottomless black. The malice and derision in their glance struck him like a blow.
“Here we are again, brave boy,” a voice said. “You have all done well to come so very far, but things are different now.”
Arden did not answer. He reached for his sword, only to find he had none. Then the eyes closed and except for the light of the braziers the hall was as dark as before.
A hand grasped his shoulder and shook him, startling him awake. He sat up and found himself on the street in Prisca. Kneeling over him was Master Jalonn, who gazed at him curiously and with some concern. In his left hand he held a torch. Argos sat beside him, looking dismayed.
“Easy, lad,” Jalonn said. “Come back to us now. Are you injured?”
“My sword – ”
“Easy. No need for that now,” Jalonn answered, picking up Arden’s sword and handing it to him.
“No?”
“Listen, Arden,” Jalonn said emphatically.
Arden listened, but the clamor and tumult of battle was gone. Arden stood up and looked about him. He was still beside the wagon, surrounded by the cloaked bodies of the dragon’s men, but beyond the small circle lit by Jalonn’s torch all else had changed. Where before all the street had been filled with rank upon rank of soldiers pressing forward, stillness and silence now prevailed. All the way up the street to the opening of the pass at the foot of the tower, and back down the street the way they had come, the men of the dragon were laid out on the ground, their ranks unbroken, still clutching their weapons and torches, most still too far away to have faced the swords of the Rangers and Evénn. None were moving. They lay like a field of wheat flattened by a great and sudden wind. The wolf wandered among the bodies, sniffing them. Arden took it all in with a glance and a gasp. Even at the Fall of the City, Arden had seen nothing like this.
“My god, Jalonn,” he stuttered, “what happened here?”
“I don’t rightly know, Arden.”
“I remember seeing a light. Then I heard Evénn cry out.”
“Yes, it was Evénn. He summoned some power the like of which I have never seen. When Agarwen fell – ”
“Where is she, Jalonn? She was right here.”
In the torch light he saw a dire expression cross the Master’s face.
“Her wound is grave.”
“Where is she?”
With a toss of his head, Jalonn indicated the tavern, the door of which now stood open.
“Niall is tending her in there.”
“Niall? Where is Evénn?”
“Unconscious.”
“Was he wounded?
“No. Well, not by any weapon of the enemy at least,” Jalonn said, and there was wonder in his voice. He looked at Arden as if he did not know what to tell him next. With a grimace of frustration, he went on.
“When you called his name, he looked your way for an instant, but when he turned back again, there was fury in his eye, and … and a light began to grow around him. It almost seemed to emanate from him. The dragon’s men stopped dead when they saw that. They were not expecting an elf lord, I imagine, and they stared at him in doubt and terror. He threw back his head and cried out in the ancient language of the elves, the language of their lore and all their mightiest enchantments. At that moment the light became unbearably bright and flooded out from him like a wave. The troopers were closer to him than I was, and the light struck them just before it did me, but I saw them fall before it like men caught in some overwhelming torrent. Then I fell, too.
“When I awoke, Evénn was on his knees, his sword beside him, and the wolf standing guard. I went to him. He was untouched, but the spell had taken all his strength. His eyes were open, but his gaze was elsewhere. I tried to rouse him, but he only sank down further and lost consciousness. He is also in the tavern, with Niall and Agarwen.”
“Are the soldiers all dead?” Arden asked.
“All of them, from what I can tell.”
“How did we survive?”
“I don’t know. But since the innkeeper and his women also survived, I would guess Evénn was able to direct the main strength of the enchantment at our enemies and spare us. Though how he could do so is beyond me.”
They stood side by side for a moment, just looking. The night was full of corpses, and pale, dead faces beneath the moon. Their ranks were so straight they appeared to have been laid out by some caring hand for burial. The light of the fallen torches flickered on their armor and weapons. He felt that he might have just stepped out of the Hall of Kings into this street, but he was not still dreaming. This was a horror of the waking world. Arden sighed. The aftermath of battle was always so lonely, as if the departure of the bereft souls of the dead created a void that pulled on the spirits of the living.
“I must go to her,” Arden said.
Jalonn nodded.
“Send Niall out if you can. I’ll start saddling the horses, but we must go soon. We cannot dally. The dragon will have felt that spell, and the City is not far from here as the dragon flies.”
Arden headed for the tavern. Jalonn’s final words made him consider telling him of his dream, but he dismissed the idea. There was no time for that anyway.
“It was just a dream,” he told himself as he went through the door.

_______________________

No comments:

Post a Comment