03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 13.1

Thirteen

The day was no less cold than the night, but the early morning sunshine which filtered through the leaves above them was welcome nonetheless. As the twilight blossomed into dawn and dawn into morning, the shadows of the trees, bushes, stones, and slopes that had been merged in darkness parted from each other and took on the shapes they owned in the daylight. Still seated beside Agarwen, Arden watched the night go. The flush which the dawn had imparted to her cheeks faded, and she looked pale from the loss of blood. He had not moved since Jalonn and Niall had left hours ago. Now they were visible to him, unmoving and barely detectable through the bushes on opposite sides of the hollow.
Periodically he had checked Agarwen, to make sure she was no worse. The last time she had seemed stronger than before, which gave him some comfort. Yet today they would have to remove the shaft of the arrow that had brought her down. They would also have to leave this place. The road was far too close. Sooner or later troops would come down it searching for them, and they needed to be far away when that happened. With the dragon at Prisca, the soldiers would not hesitate to enter the woods. The lives taken there last night were not his concern: the magic was. For, whoever could cast a spell so devastating posed a threat to him. And the dragon would know that only an elf lord could master so much power.
Arden was reckoning how long it would take the other two companies stationed at Prisca, but absent on patrol yesterday, to return. They had passed one of them going north on the Tusk road two days ago. Hansarad had told them they patrolled as far as twenty five miles north of Prisca. He also said they never moved very fast, unless the commander of the garrison was with them. Given that, they were likely to be returning to Prisca today. The patrol that went south towards the Great Road had farther to go and had left Prisca a day before the other patrol. They, too, might well return today. If so, sixty to one hundred and twenty more soldiers would be arriving at the town sometime this afternoon. Surely the dragon would allow them no rest when they did. It was also possible that the dragon had flown over the mountains to speed them along.
Just then Arden saw Master Jalonn approaching him. His face was drawn and his eyes weary. Arden knew that he looked no better himself. Niall was likely the same, though he would surely bear it more cheerfully than they. It was his nature. Niall was a reed that bent before the wind.
“How is she?” Jalonn asked.
“Still sleeping, but her heart and breathing seem stronger than they were.”
“Evénn is still sleeping as well, I see,” he said.
“He stirred briefly a couple of hours ago when the wolf came to join him. Otherwise he has not moved.”
Jalonn nodded, but his concern was as plain on his face as his exhaustion.
“We must get away from here, Jalonn,” Arden said.
“I’ve thought of little else all night. We shall have to draw the arrow first. Soon. I hope Evénn is up to it.”
“This is only the second time I have ever seen him sleep. During our entire two weeks’ journey to the Valley he did not sleep that I could tell. So I believe he will recover more quickly than any of us can imagine.”
“True, but you only saw the effects of what he did. I watched him do it. This is no ordinary weariness of body and mind on him. That power came from much further within him, as if he drew on his life’s essence to summon it.”
“And afterwards,” Arden frowned, “he helped us with Agarwen before he was ready.”
“I know,” Jalonn answered, “but too much is at stake, and we are at risk here. The dragon will be about, keen to find the enchanter who cast that spell. Soldiers will follow soon.”
“This afternoon or this evening at the earliest is my guess. I can’t see how they can get back much sooner.”
“Much depends on Hansarad and Baran. They will try to slow the enemy down if they see them hastening back to Prisca. We may also assume that by now the dragon has extracted from the innkeeper all that he knows. So he will know we came from the west and were heading east. There will also be a record of our entering from the west to confirm that. I doubt he will aid his soldiers to the west of the mountains if he knows we are on this side. He will hunt for us.”
“You’re right,” Arden said. “He will leave them on their own rather than be drawn in the wrong direction.”
For a few minutes they were quiet. Arden sat as he had all night and Jalonn crouched on one knee beside him. Many years had passed since they had been abroad together, and the thoughtful look on the Master’s face as he considered the day to come was like an old friend to Arden. He had seen it often when they were both what the world called young, though he remembered it mostly from all the months they had spent on their own together, trying to make their way from the City to the Valley, always hiding, often hunted. Through ruined cities and burnt out villages, through mountain forests charred bare by dragons’ fire and along sandy shores, they had fled and fought their way first south, then west beyond the mouths of the Rheith.
At length they came to Sharilas in the lands of Jalonn’s birth, where winter was as warm and moist as late summer in the City, and the trees, hung thick with moss, seemed to droop from the heat. The dragons and their men had not been there yet. And while the enemy stormed westward across Narinen, sacking and destroying every town or city which did not submit at once, this fair land was still untouched.
There Arden and Jalonn, having slipped beyond the reach of their foes for a brief time, found a respite they had not expected after months of flight and the small victories of mere survival. Two weeks they rested in Sharilas, regaining their strength and healing their bodies, before Jalonn decided it was time to continue on west and north towards the Gray Mountains and Plains of Rheith, where winter and the dragons’ men awaited them. In the fullness of spring they came at last into the Valley of the Rangers. Their journey had taken them nearly two years.
Now, as if closing a great circle begun long ago, he and Jalonn were on their way back to the City to face the danger they had once escaped. Each of them privately weighed the situation, assaying all the risks the day before them entailed, and how much more perilous the road before them had become because Evénn had unleashed the power within him. Argos and the wolf, who had both awakened when Jalonn joined Arden, kept looking from one man to the other, waiting for them to reach some decision.
“Well,” Jalonn finally said, “we can wait no longer. Whatever else the dragon and his men will do, they will be coming, together or apart. We must wake the elf.”
“Agreed,” Arden replied.
The wolf seemed to grasp their intention. He sat up. Gently he nuzzled Evénn’s cheek and licked his face once or twice. The elf stirred and opened his eyes. With one hand he reached up for the wolf’s head; with the other he rubbed his eyes. Jalonn glanced at Arden.
“At times I think that wolf understands every word we say,” he said.
“Would it surprise you so much, Jalonn,” Evénn said though a yawn, “to learn that the creatures of this world are more intelligent than we guess?”
“Arden,” Jalonn said, ignoring the question, “I’d say you were right. He’s definitely himself again. Wake up, Evénn. We’ve much to do today.”
“Just so,” he replied, as he got up and came over to check Agarwen. He laid his head on her breast, holding one hand up for silence. His eyes were closed as if listening with all his attention. A long time he knelt over her, but just when Jalonn and Arden were wondering if he had fallen asleep again, he lifted his head and leaned back, a look of satisfaction on his face.
“She is much better this morning. Her wounds concerned me gravely last night, but the bleeding has stopped. She is strong and means to live. Arden’s herbs and enchantments have done the rest.”
“Can she be moved?” Jalonn asked with some urgency.
“Not yet. That shaft must come out first, or all Arden’s work will be undone.”
“Then let’s get to it. Time is wasting.”
“Where is Niall?” Evénn asked.
“On watch,” Jalonn replied.
“Then, Arden,” he said, turning to him from Jalonn, “please, go tell him that we shall be occupied for some time, and bring me my sword.”
“It is there, by the tree, where you left it.”
Evénn looked at it and smiled slightly.
“So it is, of course.”
“Why do you need your sword?” Arden asked.
“You shall see. Go speak to Niall.”
Arden stood up and left. His legs and back were stiff with weariness and sitting on the ground for so long. He forced his unwilling legs to go numbly on. When he came back, Jalonn was sitting cross-legged with Agarwen’s head in his lap. His hand rested on her brow. Evénn sat beside her, one of his legs stretched out beneath her to raise up and support her back and shoulders. The blankets and her cloak were thrown back, revealing a jerkin and shirt caked with dried, brown blood. Evénn removed her jerkin and carefully peeled her shirt away from her shoulder, and with his fingers probed around the broken shaft of the arrow. She moaned in her sleep. Jalonn stroked her head and hair.
“Arden, come here. I need you,” Evénn said without looking up. “Place yourself here, behind her left shoulder. I shall push and you will pull. You have done this before?”
“Yes.”
“Good. Jalonn, wake her.”
“Agarwen,” Jalonn called her name in a voice kinder that Arden had ever heard him use. “Agarwen.”
She opened her eyes and looked up at him.
“Master Jalonn,” she said, somewhat taken aback.
“Agarwen, it is morning. We are about to remove the arrow. You must not cry out. We are in danger.”
“I understand.”
“Are you ready?”
“Yes.”
With that Evénn pushed the arrow through her shoulder while Arden pulled on it from the other side. It came out easily, followed by blood, which was not fresh, but thick and almost congealed. Agarwen’s back arched and stiffened as she fought the urge to cry aloud. Her eyes blazed and she bared her gritted teeth; a low growl escaped her throat that made the dog and wolf shy away. Then she went limp, breathing heavily.
“Put your hands over her wound and say the words of the spell now,” Evénn told them.
As Arden and Jalonn began whispering the words, they pressed their palms on her wound, Jalonn to the front and Arden the back. Evénn picked up his sword and unsheathed it. He looked up and his eyes met Arden’s.
“We must seal the wound,” he said simply.
“But how? We have no – ”
Then he saw Evénn run his hand back and forth along the flat of the blade, first on one side, then the other, muttering a few quick words so low that Arden could not catch them. Almost at once the last three inches toward the point began to glow red. Evénn smiled at him.
“Like so,” he said. Then he leaned over Agarwen once more. “This is going to hurt far more than the arrow, but I know you can bear it.”
Agarwen, staring at the glowing tip of the blade, did not look so sure. There was a touch of fear in her fierce eyes, but she took a deep breath and nodded emphatically to Evénn. At once he pressed the flat of the sword to her flesh, which smoked and charred around the blade. Agarwen gasped and clapped her right hand hard over her mouth. Her eyes were screwed shut and her cheeks wet. A few seconds later – an age and more for Agarwen – the elf removed the blade and peered at her burnt flesh.
“Good. Now for the other side.”
“Good?” Agarwen hissed as Jalonn and Arden rolled her onto her side. Evénn repeated the process.
When it was done, they carefully let her back down again, leaving her on her right side and placing blankets beneath her head for a pillow. Jalonn and Arden stayed with her while Evénn went to fetch a salve from his saddlebags. He dabbed it as delicately as he could on the wound. She twitched at every touch.
“Well done, Agarwen,” Evénn said when it was over. “I have known great warriors of elves and men who could not bear so much so well. Now sleep for an hour. The worst is over.”
But Agarwen was already unconscious. Evénn wiped his sword and sheathed it.
“She must rest for an hour. You should get some rest while you can. Niall, too. I shall stand guard.”
“You are recovered?” Jalonn inquired.
“Enough for now.”
“And Agarwen?”
“She will be able to ride, though it will be painful. We will have to go slowly today. She is weak. We need a place to hide until she regains her strength.”
“How long?”
“A week or two, with proper tending and rest. It will be quite some time, though, before she can draw her bow effectively.”
Jalonn thought about this, then said “I think I know a place, if I can still find it after all these years.”
“We can discuss that later. Rest for a bit now,” he said and walked off in Niall’s direction.
The wolf followed, as did Argos at a nod from Arden. Moving over and propping himself against the tree where Evénn had slept, Arden leaned back his head. He let out a great sigh of relief and was asleep almost at once.
When Evénn called him, it seemed he had just shut his eyes. Through the trees he checked the sun and knew that he had slept closer to two hours than one. As he climbed to his feet, he still felt stiff and tired. It would take more sleep than that to refresh him after yesterday, and they had a long day ahead of them today. Agarwen was sitting upright nearby. Though pale, she looked less deathly than before. Beneath her cloak and jerkin he could see she was wearing a fresh shirt.
“How do you feel?” he asked her.
“Better than I would have thought,” she replied. “For a while there last night I thought I was going to die. I thought we were all going to die. Thank you for caring for me.”
“You would have done the same for me.”
“Evénn says you saved my life, that you show a talent for the healing of others.”
“Evénn says many things,” Arden answered. He turned his face away to conceal that he was blushing. At the same time he wondered if the elf meant something by the healing of others.
“We let you, Niall, and Master Jalonn sleep longer. You seemed to need it.”
“We did, but we also need to leave this place.”
“I know. I’m ready to go.”
“How well do you think you can ride?”
“Better than last night at any rate. Several times I thought I would fall from my horse.”
“We had you lashed into the saddle, but I am still surprised you didn’t, especially during your charge down the road.”
“Well, we had to get off the road, and I didn’t know if I had the strength to stay in the saddle much longer. But I was confident Bufo would get me there.”
“It’s a good thing she is sure-footed.”
“I have ridden her so often in the mountains and up and down the rocky hillsides near the Valley that I doubt a mountain goat could outpace her on a slope.”
“Training is everything, I suppose, as the Masters say.”
“They are usually right about such things, you know.”
“They are indeed,” he replied, thinking again about the now clear wisdom of their counsels of patience and faith.
When he said nothing more, Agarwen said, “I had very strange dreams last night.”
“Oh? What about?” he asked, remembering his own dream.
“I can only remember two clearly, and I can’t tell you exactly when I had them, but I believe the first came when we were riding down the mountain road. I was drifting in and out until Evénn cried that the dragon was coming.”
“What did you dream?”
“I dreamt I was in a large dark room with the dragon,” she said, startling Arden. “What is it?” she asked.
“Nothing. I’m just surprised, is all. It sounds like a dream someone would have in a story.”
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it? That’s just what I was thinking a few minutes ago, but, you could say, we are in a story.”
“I guess you could, but one no one will ever hear it told unless we succeed.”
“Of course we’ll succeed,” she said, as if he were being foolish. She smiled at him. He shook his head and smiled back.
“You should do that more often,” she added.
“But what of the dragon in your dream?” he asked, ignoring her.
“I couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see me, not yet, but I knew he was searching for me. I could feel that. He told me he could smell my blood, that I was going to die soon, that he was coming for us. I knew if I answered him, he would find me. I did not want that. I kept thinking of what Evénn said about never speaking to them or looking them in the eye. Somehow it seemed like more than a dream.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s difficult to say, exactly. It felt like I was actually there, wherever he was, or maybe that he was somehow in my mind with me, and I was perceiving where he was because he was in my mind. That makes little sense, I know.”
“What of your other dream?” Arden asked after pondering her words for a moment.
“I dreamt of the sea.”
“But you have never seen it.”
“True, but you and Niall and others have told me of it often enough, and I have read much in the library about it. From the time I was little I have been eager to see it. I remember that you once told me that you dreamt of the sea almost every night. And last night for the first time ever I could smell the salt in the air as we came down the mountain.”
“Yes, we spoke of it.”
“Did we? I don’t recall that.”
“You were barely awake at the time.”
Jalonn came up to them.
“If you two are done talking, it is time for us to go,” he said, holding out his hand to help Agarwen to her feet. She took it and he pulled her up. She tried to make it look easy, but clearly she was in great pain. “Arden,” he added, “pack up these cloaks and blankets. Make sure we leave no traces.”
“Yes, Master Jalonn,” he answered, getting up himself.
Without delay he gathered up the cloaks and blankets which had furnished Agarwen a bed, and packed them up behind the horses’ saddles. When he was finished, the others mounted and headed off south just below the ridgeline. They had taken care to conceal every bit of bare metal they could, lest it gleam in the sunlight and betray them. They stayed out of sight beneath the trees as they rode, at times going far out of their way downhill to avoid crossing any open areas where they might be seen from above. The dragon could fly overhead at any time, and his sight was far keener that any elf’s.
Once they were gone, Arden scoured the hollow for any sign that they had been there. Fortunately, the ground was too hard from the cold for any footprints to remain. Still he looked carefully for any branches that might have snagged a bit of wool from their cloaks or been bent by momentary carelessness. He cleared away the horses’ dung and cast it down the steepest, barest slope he could find. It took an hour, but at last he was satisfied that no trooper and likely no hunter could have told they had been there. Agarwen’s bloody shirt and cloak had been packed away, as had the first bandages he had used to dress her wound at Prisca. Perhaps a mountain wolf could sniff them out – there had been some with the patrol they had passed on the Tusk Road – or maybe the dragon himself. But the hollow was narrow and deep, full of brush and surrounded by tall pines. He doubted the dragon could get down there, and he guessed that Evénn could fool the wolves here as he had done before.
All the time he remained in the hollow, though, he could not help but wonder whether Agarwen’s dream of the dragon and his own were merely a coincidence or whether they meant something more sinister. He recalled the sudden piercing glance that Evénn had cast at him last night in the tavern, when, under the influence of the dream, he had spoken as with certain knowledge of the dragon. What Evénn had told him on their first journey together, that the dragons had perhaps whispered to the elf lords in their dreams and so deceived them into summoning them, came back to him now. There was no denying that the dragon had been aware of all the power Evénn had unleashed last night; and if from the world of spirits the dragons could enter the dreams of elf lords, they could surely enter them in this world. After much thought, Arden could only confess that he did not have an answer. Perhaps Evénn could say more. Considering the look he had received from him, Arden was sure that the elf would ask him about what he had said in the tavern before too long.
Arden pulled the bow of Mahar from its boot on Impetuous’ saddle, hung it across his back, and rode off after the others. He knew they would be following the ridgeline, as Niall had suggested last night. He also knew that he could find them even if no one else could. Argos trotted beside him as he made his way through the woods. Now and then Arden stopped to examine the ground for signs of their passing, more as a precaution against any pursuit later in the day than because he needed to do so. With an hour’s head start, and with the steep and uneven slope he had to cross, he would not overtake them until they stopped for the day. When that would be, Arden had no idea, since Jalonn had said nothing of their destination, or whether they would reach it today. Most likely it was a small camp, secluded in some hollow or ravine, which Baran’s Rangers used when on this side of the mountains.
So Arden rode on for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, keeping himself within the deep shadows of the pines. Sometimes the terrain compelled him to walk, lest he risk injury to his horse. In places the ground was loose and rocky, the result of endless tree roots cracking and breaking the stone hills through long ages. The pines were huge and thick up here. Their height and girth made him feel like a child wandering between the legs of giants. They soared higher even than the tall towers which had once stood above the Hall of Kings in the City. One of those towers had been broken by the dragons the night the City fell. Whether the other still stood he would soon learn.
The snow was also less on the eastern façade of the Green Hills, covering the summits but not below them. Only the greatest and coldest of storms which sailed across the Plains of Rheith, burying the flat lands and shallow rolling hills there, ever managed to bring their snows over to the coastlands. Once they overtopped the mountains they met the warmer air from the sea and their snows became rain, which kept the mountains, hills, and plains to the east green even in winter. Arden could recall but one week in a winter of his youth when it was cold enough for snow to fall. Even then it did not endure long, but fled away with the swift return of the more moderate airs from the sea. Much to his and his brother’s disappointment.
The hours passed slowly. Since meeting Evénn he had seldom been alone except on the long rides he had taken outside the Valley on the pretext of training his new horse. After all the years in the wilds, with horse and hound his only comrades, solitude was almost his natural state. His companions’ absence comforted him. It restored the rhythm of a life in which the hours unfolded like the slow seasons of childhood. There was a certainty in silence that no friendship could match. Yet over the last few months Arden had also grown to enjoy the talk and the company, the shared labors and the exchange of glances, all he had so long shunned for fear and sorrow. Those feelings were no less potent than before, but, had he gazed into a mirror as he now gazed into the quiet forest, he would have seen more reflected than the image of his pain. As content as he was to ride alone today, he also looked forward to the evening.
About an hour before dark, Arden began scanning the ground ahead of him to make sure the company had not turned aside unexpectedly. Every few minutes he also looked back north and west in the direction of Prisca. The sun had dipped below the mountain tops to the west less than a half hour ago, and the eastern slopes and coastlands were already deep in twilight, but higher up the blue sky still reflected the translucent gold of the late afternoon. It was some time before Arden saw him, so far aloft and distant that only a glint of red revealed him. The dragons had flown as high the morning they had come to Narinen. Had Arden not been present that day, he would not have known what to look for.
Slowly he slipped the bow of Mahar over his head and shoulder and pulled an arrow from his quiver. He wondered whether even an enchanted bow, fortified by the words of a spell, could send an arrow so high. May be, but Arden’s faith was not strong enough to risk it. Failure meant catastrophe. Even if the dragon did not see the arrow, he would hear the words of the incantation as Arden spoke them. He would know where Arden was. That might draw the dragon in, bringing him closer to the earth, where the bow could surely reach him; but knowing that an enemy had the bow and the words of power with which to use it could also drive him away. Arden’s position would still be known to him and the ability to take the beast by surprise would be lost. It was too dangerous. Arden chose to wait.
Yet as he crouched amid the gathering shadows of the mountains and trees, Arden perceived that the dragon was descending slowly, so slowly that none but a patient watcher would have seen it. He was also heading in Arden’s direction, coming south between the summits of the Green Hills and the ridge along which he and the others were traveling. With the speed of his flight he would soon fly almost directly overhead.
An age passed between the beats of Arden’s heart as he watched the dragon come. To cover the distance between where Arden had first seen him soaring far to the north of Prisca and the road itself, took him perhaps five minutes. So another minute or two would be all he needed to reach Arden. Here was the chance he had waited all his life for, to exact one measure of justice for Sorrow, for his father and brother, for his friends and for his people. Closer and closer the dragon came. Now he was halfway between the Prisca Road and Arden. Soon. The time would be soon. He found his heart racing, a mixture of anger, fear, and exhilaration coursing through his body and mind. But in the center of all these emotions there was also a calm place within him from which he saw everything with clarity. He studied his hands. He was not trembling.
Abruptly the dragon pivoted and wheeled back to the north in a great circle. Back as far as the road he flew, catching the light of the sun with each beat of his wings. Near the road he circled above the ridgeline, quite close to the hollow where they had hidden the night before. To Arden it appeared as if he had caught some trace of the magic they had used to treat Agarwen, a fading echo of their presence that could not escape a dragon’s senses.
He continued there for a few minutes, soaring now aloft, now stooping low. Arden waited to see what he would do. Rising above the mountain peaks the dragon still glittered in the rays of the invisible sun. When below them and skimming over the tree tops of the ridge, he grew dark and nearly vanished in the twilight. But Arden never lost sight of him. Finally the dragon broke the circle and resumed his flight southwards, climbing once more, but no longer high enough to catch the sun. He was dark against the northern sky. He was coming straight at him now. Arden’s doubts fell away. He notched his arrow. To keep his mind calm and clear, Arden commenced the litany of the Rangers.
“Look upon the sun and the stars. Know that god made them….”
He could feel the excitement ebbing from him as he repeated the words slowly to himself. He compelled his mind to turn the images of the litany over and over again. He was trying to pace himself, so that the dragon would arrive just as he reached its end. That would keep him from beginning the incantation too soon, and alerting the dragon to his presence. But the moment of the dragon’s arrival and the litany’s last words were fast converging.
Halfway through he heard an owl calling. One of the others was near. Jalonn appeared on foot and crouched down next to him. Arden held a finger to his lips.
“The dragon is coming,” he whispered.
“I know. That’s why I’m here. You mustn’t shoot.”
Arden was astonished. For a few seconds could not reply.
“Why not?” he asked slowly.
“We aren’t ready. Evénn says he is not yet strong enough to face the dragon.”
“Master, I have the bow,” Arden hissed. “I know the words. This is – ”
“The best chance we’ve ever had?” Jalonn asked him urgently, one hand grasping him by the wrist. “I know. So does Evénn, but he begs you not to shoot. Even against the full might of the bow, the creature is not powerless. If you do not kill him with the first shot, things will go ill with us. Once the bow is revealed, everything will change. We must be sure.”
Arden glared in frustration, looking rapidly from Jalonn to the dragon and back again. In seconds the dragon would be above them.
“Please, do not shoot. The time is not yet.”
In Jalonn’s voice there was steel as well as sorrow. Arden relented. He drew up his hood, and hung his head in bitterness. With a howling rush of wings, the beast passed overhead. As he receded into the south, Arden began the litany again. Jalonn left him be. He knew what it meant for Arden to stay his hand.

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