03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 13.2

Night fell. Arden and Jalonn stayed where they were for another hour. About halfway through they heard wings above them once more, this time heading north towards Prisca. Arden watched him go as he had watched him come, only now he could descry nothing but the beast’s shadow as it blotted out the stars. When the hour was over and the dragon long gone, they stood up. Arden slipped the arrow in his quiver and slung the bow over his shoulder again. Then Jalonn led him to the camp the others had made. It was not far. As they drew near Jalonn called in the voice of an owl. Another voice responded and Niall came forth to meet them. He patted Arden gently on the shoulder as he went by without a word or gesture to acknowledge him.
In the camp they found Evénn sitting beneath a tree, the wolf lying beside him. Agarwen was asleep a few feet away. In the turmoil of the last two hours he had nearly forgotten her.
“Rest and eat, Arden. The last two days have been difficult,” the elf said softly and looked up at him, “but Agarwen is much better. I think she will soon be out of danger.”
Arden could find nothing to say. He felt the release of a burden of worry, but he was so angry at Evénn and Jalonn for bidding him not to shoot the dragon when he had the chance that it robbed him of words. It did not matter that they were right; it did matter that she was better. Without a sound he spun away from Evénn, pulled his bedroll from Impetuous’ back and tossed it on the ground. After he unsaddled and fed him, he lay down himself, drawing his cloak and blanket tightly about him. In a few minutes weariness overcame frustration. He slept deeply and without waking till morning.

The full memory of yesterdaythe was upon him before he opened his eyes again. The pain of it was overwhelming. He lay motionless for some time, trying to tell himself that obedience was the first part of duty, but he often found virtue a cold comfort in the light of dawn. Once more he rehearsed the litany in his mind and sighed when he completed it. His heart was elsewhere.
“So, you’re awake,” he heard Agarwen say.
Her voice sounded stronger. He rolled over to face her and sat up. She was sitting in a patch of sunlight that had somehow made its way through the pine branches thick above them. She looked better as well. Color was again brushing her cheeks, which no longer had the ashen hue of death in them. Niall and Jalonn were sleeping on either side of a nearby tree. Evénn was gone, along with Argos and the wolf. Their horses stood saddled.
“Thank you for all you did for me, Arden. I know I said that yesterday, but Evénn says you saved my life, and I think it bears repeating,” she said warmly.
“You’re welcome,” he said in spite of the mood that was on him, “but it was Evénn who saved you.”
“Last night must have been difficult,” she said, changing the subject.
“You know what I mean. Don’t pretend you don’t. Not shooting after waiting so long.”
“It was the right thing to do.”
“But that’s often the hardest thing, isn’t it. The time will come, Arden,” she said. Reaching down, she lifted a small wooden plate of food from the ground and offered it to him.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Well, that has to be a lie. Help me eat this, will you?” she said conspiratorially, and took a quick look around. “Ever since I woke up several hours ago, Evénn has been cramming me full of food, and saying I must eat. But if I eat another bite of this crusty bread and salt pork, it won’t be my wound that kills me.”
“Very well, then,” he replied with a slight smile, his mood improving with resignation. His three years in the woods with her told him that she would brook no refusal. A few bites taught him just how hungry he was. In no time he had finished all the food on the plate.
“Perhaps later today,” he said, “I’ll be able to provide us with something fresh, if we can find a place where it is safe to build a small fire. These woods were once full of game.”
“You sound hungry now,” Agarwen replied.
“I suppose I do. Where is Evénn?”
“He went off with the lads nearly an hour ago. He kept watch all night by himself while the four of us slept.”
“Sounds like he’s himself again.”
“He seems to be.”
“We’ll need to move again soon. I’ll start getting things ready.”
“I can help,” she said, trying to rise.
“No, you can’t. You sit there.”
“I hate sitting by while others work.”
“Nevertheless. You are my apprentice and you will do as I tell you.”
“That was years ago. I don’t call you Master Arden anymore,” she smiled up at him.
“Just do as I say, Agarwen. Please.”
She laughed at him.
“You were more convincing back then,” she said and laughed again, but her laughter made her wince. She put her hand to her shoulder and closed her eyes until the edge of the pain grew dull.
Arden strapped his bedroll behind Impetuous’ saddle. He did the same with hers, then began to assess the camp, looking for signs of their presence that would have to be removed. As he was moving about, first Jalonn, then Niall awoke. Jalonn was on his feet in a moment and packing. Niall sat and stretched.
“I miss my bed,” he said.
“Then you’ve grown soft in your cottage with your family,” Jalonn replied in a low voice. “It is too long since you have been abroad.”
Niall looked from Jalonn, who had not turned away from his work, to Agarwen, with an exaggerated expression of shock on his face. She tried not to laugh.
“You Rangers from the City always were a bit soft,” Jalonn continued dryly. “Isn’t that so, Agarwen?”
“I have always found them so, Master Jalonn,” she answered earnestly, but with her eye on Arden.
Niall lay back down, dramatically flinging his arm over his face. Then he jumped up with a grin and began his own preparations to leave. All was ready when Evénn returned several minutes later. Jalonn went to Agarwen and helped her to her feet. He looked her over.
“Ready,” she replied.
“Let’s go then. Niall, help Agarwen onto her horse,” he said as he walked off to mount his own. Niall stayed behind to make sure they had left no traces behind them. Today their journey was briefer than yesterday’s. As Arden had guessed, they were making for a place where Baran’s Rangers camped when on this side of the mountains. As with all the camps used by the Rangers these days, it was remote, but Jalonn found it without too much difficulty in the early afternoon. It lay on a broad shelf about halfway down the eastern side of the ridge. Here there were no caves or hot springs. An overhang deep enough to hide them from above and a dense screen of firs all around were all it had to offer, but it was sufficient for Jalonn to allow that a small fire before dark would safe.
Arden left camp at once to set snares for rabbits. Evénn accompanied him at first, but went off in search of herbs to replace those he and Arden had used to treat Agarwen’s wound. Several hours later they returned carrying both. By that time Niall had caught up to them and was busy with a fire he built of pine needles and cones along with all of the dry wood he could find. While Agarwen slept and Jalonn kept watch from the edge of the shelf, Arden dressed the rabbits and began roasting them over the fire. Evénn separated his herbs and warmed some water to prepare more medicine for Agarwen.
Just as it was growing dark and nearly time to put out the fire, Arden declared their meal ready. Evénn woke Agarwen and removed her bandages, which showed little sign of bleeding. He washed her wounds back and front with the herbs and water, applied more salve to the burns, and bound her shoulder with fresh bandages. Though she flinched a time or two, Agarwen made no sound.
“There,” Evénn said, as he tied the ends of the bandage together, “that should do it.”
“You did not use the enchantment.”
“No,” he replied, “with the dragon so close and looking for us, that would have been risky. From what Arden told me this afternoon, the dragon caught a hint of the enchantments we used yesterday morning. Besides, you are doing well enough without them, for now. Perhaps tomorrow or the next day it will be safer.”
“If you are done there,” Arden broke in, “the rabbit is ready. You should eat it while it’s still hot.”
“It smells good,” Agarwen said, “and I am hungry for something more savory than I had this morning.”
“But you just had a fine venison stew, not above a week ago,” said Niall, “and already you want more than the simple fare of Rangers in the wild?”
“Yes, I do,” she answered, and bit into a piece of rabbit.
“And I thought Rangers from the City were supposed to be soft,” he said. “But you don’t hear Arden and me complaining, do you?”
He looked to Arden.
“Not a word,” Arden said.
“What do you say now, Master Jalonn?” Niall turned to him and asked.
“I might have to revise my opinion. You are all soft.”
“Oh, let’s just eat before it gets cold,” Agarwen said.
Arden smothered the fire and they all sat down to eat. Evénn and Jalonn stayed farther off, keeping their eyes on the woods and sky while they ate. Argos and the wolf were particularly friendly and attentive, receiving bones and bits of meat from each of the party for their kindness. The meal passed without speech, a sure sign of hunger. Soon after they were done, Agarwen was asleep again, and the others divided up the watches of the night. Evénn tried to persuade them to let him keep watch alone, so they could rest while they had the chance, but they refused to consider it. Still, except when he took a moment to check on Agarwen, Evénn remained to keep each of the others company in turn.
In the morning, as he was tending Agarwen’s shoulder, Evénn informed them that the dragon had passed overhead twice between midnight and dawn, flying high and fast beneath the clouds. Once he turned and circled, but otherwise he did not linger. Evénn also told Agarwen that she would not be ready to travel except at need for at least a week, and he could risk no more spells until the dragon gave up his search for them. When she balked at the delay, Jalonn silenced her by immediately agreeing with Evénn. A look from him made clear he would endure no contradictions or protests from her. So they settled in for at least a week’s stay.
The days passed quickly, for they were not idle. Each day one or more of them would leave the camp to scout out the woods and mountains around them, looking for any signs that the dragon had sent troops into the woods. Two days after they had reached the camp, Niall and Arden retraced their steps all the way back to the road. When they returned the following day to report that they had discovered nothing, their news was welcome. A greater relief would have accompanied it, were the dragon not still patrolling the sky above them night and day. Once or twice he came so near their hiding place that they thought they had been found out, but it was not so. Their spirits inched higher, but still they spoke in hushed voices and watched the skies.
When Jalonn was in camp he constantly practiced with his sword, beginning with the most rudimentary of fencing exercises and moving on step by step to the most advanced. To do so took hours, but he never seemed to tire or grow bored. If anything, the discipline and labor of progressing from form to form was for him another kind of meditation. Niall, Arden, and Evénn all joined him in turn whenever they were present, though as a rule there were never more than two in camp with Agarwen. At times there was only one. If he was present at the Time of Reflection, Jalonn also made a point of leading Agarwen and usually Arden in meditation. For beside the days he and Niall were gone, Arden was always there at that hour, following the meditation while he prepared the day’s catch of rabbit over a small fire.
By the sixth day they had gone two days straight without sighting the dragon. Evénn had seen him last flying towards Narinen high up in the evening after sunset. None of the others were able to pick him out against the blue gray sky. This led Evénn, who was also pleased at how quickly Agarwen was healing, to renew the healing enchantments along with the herbal treatments, three times a day. In a stream nearby he had washed her bandages and shirt, so she could have a clean dressing for her wound and a clean shirt to go over it every day. The shoulder was still sore and hurt if jostled, but the pain had become bearable. Several weeks would pass before she could draw her bow properly, but the elf predicted that she would be ready to travel and wield her sword in perhaps a week.
That day Arden was in camp alone with Evénn and Agarwen. The rabbits were about half done and Evénn had just finished dressing her wound. Nine days had come and gone since Prisca, yet Evénn had said still nothing to Arden about the events of that night or about Arden’s statement in the tavern about the dragon. More than once the two of them had left camp together to patrol or hunt, and each time Arden had expected him to raise the subject, but he had always confined his remarks to the matters at hand. Given his reaction that night, Arden regarded his silence more and more curiously as the days went by. That afternoon Arden made up his mind to raise the subject himself. The day was unseasonably warm, with the smell of the sea strong on the light breeze. Such days had always given him a sense of well being when he was young; and that, combined with his growing preoccupation with Evénn’s silence, led him to speak.
“Evénn,” he said without looking away from the fire, “there is something we need to discuss.”
“Yes,” the elf replied from behind him, “I have been waiting for you to mention it.”
“Me? Given the importance you seemed to attach to my words, I had expected you to ask.”
“I do think your words important, but I have been observing you.”
“I don’t understand. Why have you been observing me?”
“To see if you were under the spell of the dragon.”
“What?” Arden was stunned and turned away from the fire to stare at him.
“What?” said Agarwen. “Stop speaking in riddles, the both of you. Why would you think that? What did Arden say?”
“Yes, why?” Arden added.
“The night we were in Prisca, when Arden came into the tavern he said to me, with the greatest assurance, that we must make haste because the dragon had felt my spell and would come to Prisca. In only two ways could he have come by such certainty. Either he had a vision of the dragon while he lay unconscious in the street or he had a dream.
“If a vision, he was in great peril since the dragon could have seen him as well; if a dream, the danger was less – since it might have been just a dream – but still grave because beings of spirit can visit us in our dreams. Either way, the beast could have bewitched him and used him to find or kill us.”
“Dream or vision, I don’t know which it was, Evénn,” Arden said. “I only know what I saw. It was enough to leave me convinced – that night at any rate – that the dragon knew that I at least was there.”
“Wait,” Agarwen interrupted. “You saw the dragon that night, too?”
“I did.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she demanded.
“Because I was taken aback by your dream, and because you were wounded and we had to hurry.”
Evénn had watched this exchange in stony silence, a look of concern on his face.
“More importantly, Arden,” he said, “why didn’t you tell me? The simple fact that Agarwen also experienced something in a dream or vision should have told you how important it was.”
Evénn paused, but before Arden could answer he continued.
“Now tell me what you saw, Arden. Then you, Agarwen.”
Arden described what he had seen while Evénn listened closely.
“You did not speak to the dragon?” he asked.
“But you did look into his eyes.”
“And you say he knew who you were?”
“He called me ‘brave boy’ just as he did thirty years ago.”
“I remember that from your story. He said nothing more than you have told us? Think, Arden. We must be sure.”
“No, that was all.”
“I see. If it was only a dream, that could explain how he knew you. Our dreams often give life to our fears. If more than that, it means he somehow knows more than is good for us. Now, Agarwen, tell us what you saw.”
Again the elf attended carefully to her words.
“But you did not see or speak to him?”
“No, it was as I have told you.”
“It would be strange if these were both merely dreams,” Evénn said. “This is quite disturbing.”
He stood up and paced back and forth for some minutes, immersed in thought. Arden went on tending to their supper. Agarwen watched the late afternoon sunlight at play in the shade of the trees. Arden frowned.
“Evénn, if you thought my words so important, why didn’t you ask me about them at once?”
“If you were enspelled, you would have lied, but your deeds would betray you. So when you didn’t approach me, I wasn’t overly concerned by that. You are a Ranger, solitary and silent by training and inclination, long accustomed to keeping secrets within you and rolling them over in your mind, while you await the fitting time to disclose them. You might then wait before speaking, but were you under the dragon’s sway, again your deeds would speak before you did. So I waited and I observed.”
“You came close to using the spell of healing while the dragon was near. That alarmed and perplexed me. Was it a lapse of judgment born of anxiety for Agarwen, or was it a trick of the dragon that used your concern for her life against us?”
“Would I have told you that if I were bewitched?”
“Perhaps not, yet even then you did not seem to grasp how narrowly we avoided catastrophe that night. Do not mistake the cunning of the dragons, Arden. They can influence their victims in ways both subtle and gross. They can cast an obvious, irresistible spell that subdues the will, as the black dragon did to Conn, or make an imperceptible suggestion that nudges you along a path you were already inclined to follow, as they did with my father.
“So just because the black dragon enchanted Conn and sent him directly off to kill others does not mean that the red would do the same. The black himself might have used Conn differently if the circumstances or his mood had differed. The red could have set you to kill us if it suited him, or to betray us by action or inadvertence. He could twist your concern for a wounded comrade or your desire for vengeance in order to lead you into error, just as the dragons misled my father and the elf lords by whispering to them in their dreams. Their hearts’ desire was to do good and they did not understand that the power of the dragons was perverting that longing. Conn knew he was under the beast’s influence; my father and the others did not. Yet they were all equally powerless. That is why, since I was already anxious about you, I sent Jalonn to you that day. I knew the dragon was nearby, and I feared you would shoot at him if he came close enough.”
“How did you know where he was?”
“I saw him, just as you did, though fortunately much sooner.”
“And what if I hadn’t heeded Jalonn?”
“He would’ve killed you the instant you raised the bow.”
Evénn sighed and looked at Arden with regret. Arden shrugged.
“So Master Jalonn knew of your concerns?” said Agarwen quietly after a few moments.
“As did Niall,” Evénn answered. “He also heard Arden’s words at the tavern, and told Jalonn immediately. We began watching you with great concern that very night.”
“So, I suppose I’ve never really been alone since then?” Arden asked.
“No, one of us was always at hand. Even that day, Niall hung back to keep an eye on you.”
“All this mistrust only strengthens the dragon,” Agarwen said. “If we are so suspicious that we are prepared to kill each other to protect our errand, is he not already winning?”
“You are right, Agarwen,” said Evénn. “It does make him stronger. But our errand is more important than any of us. No one can be allowed to imperil it. You are wrong, however, to ask if the dragon is already winning. The dragons won long ago. There is no ‘already.’ Our hopes are small, and if we fail there will be no one to take our place. The dragons will prevail until the ending of the world.”
“Maybe, Evénn, maybe,” she said,” but maybe you are the one who lacks faith now.”
The elf smiled grimly, but did not answer.
“So what do you think now?” Arden asked. “Are you still of the opinion that I could be under the beast’s spell?”
“No,” he replied. “When you heeded Jalonn and did not shoot, it cost you dearly, I know. I doubt you would have yielded or suffered so, had you been bewitched.”
“That was a week ago, yet you have continued to say nothing.”
“We had to be sure, my friend.”
Arden shook his head, half in disbelief. “I suppose I would’ve done the same, had I suspected you,” he said after a moment’s thought.
“You had better, if ever you do.”
“So, then,” Agarwen said, “what did we see that night? A dream or a vision?”
“The coincidence suggests that you truly saw the dragon and did not merely imagine him.”
Agarwen considered his words. Until today her dream had seemed just that, no different than any other dream she had ever had, but she had never – oh, how could she put it? – so nearly shared the same dream with someone else. To think of that gave her pause.
“I have two questions,” she said. “First, why could the dragon find Arden at all?”
“Most likely because he has the black dragon’s blood on him. Somehow it marked Arden; and when the red dragon bent his thoughts our way, it allowed him to perceive and recognize him.”
“But you’re not sure?” Agarwen said.
“No, Agarwen, I’m not sure. How could I be? Almost no one who gets that close to a dragon lives to tell of it.”
“Lucky me,” Arden scoffed.
“Yes, lucky you,” Agarwen answered him sharply.
They looked away from each other, disquieted.
“What is your second question, Agarwen?” Evénn asked, studying them both.
“Why didn’t the dragon cast a spell on Arden when their eyes met?”
“I cannot explain that. It’s a mystery to me.”
“Could his hatred of the beast have shielded him?”
“No, precisely the opposite. Arden’s hatred would have helped the dragon. Powerful emotions like that expose and reveal the mind. They do not protect it.”
“There is another thing I do not understand,” Arden said. “The dragon said to me that things were different now. What did he mean?”
“It’s hard to say. He might have meant that my use of so great an enchantment had betrayed our presence.”
“But you don’t think so.” Arden asked after a pause.
“No, I don’t. I believe he means that they are different this time. In the first war each of them was so concerned to establish his primacy over the others that they fought with each other more often than they attacked us; and when they came for us, they did so alone or at most two of them together. That is one of the reasons why my city never fell to their assaults, and why we had the time to create the weapons with which to destroy them. For we soon learned that if enough elf lords were gathered in one place and joined their strengths, we had the power to hold the walls of Elashandra against them.
“This time the dragons acted as one from the very first, and things were different. Almost all the mightiest elf lords were slain in a single stroke, and with them fell the world. Without the ancient weapons and the combined prowess of the lords, we had no hope of resisting all four dragons together. Not even for a little while. Some day if we are spared I will tell you that tale of the desperate, bloody valor shown by your people and mine on the plains east of Elashandra thirty years ago.
“Nevertheless, the beasts fought and conquered together, and did not war on each other even after defeating us all. Some strange bond exists among them this time, whose precise nature has so far escaped me. Yet its significance is all too clear. Our world has come to dust and ashes because of it. My guess is that the beast was alluding to this.”
“But there is no way of knowing,” Agarwen said.
“No,” Evénn shook his head.
“Not yet, you mean,” Arden added.
“Hmmm,” Agarwen sighed. “Conversations with you make my head ache, Evénn. They seem to raise a new question for each one they answer.”
“Perhaps supper will help,” Arden said, bringing her and Evénn their food. He smothered the fire at once and made sure it was out. “At least it will help your head. I am taking some food to Niall and Master Jalonn,” he said and left them alone. They began eating as they watched Arden walk away. He still had not returned by the time she was finished. For a few minutes she gazed thoughtfully in the direction he had gone. Then turned to Evénn.
“Were you really worried he had fallen?” she asked.
“We all were.”
“You were all wrong.”
“As it turns out.”
“No, you were wrong even to suspect him. Arden would not fall.”
“Would not?” Evénn said, so incredulous at her words that he nearly laughed. “None of us is safe from the dragon’s power. You underestimate them if you think so.”
“And you underestimate Arden. I know it sounds, well, innocent, even foolish, of me even to say so, but Arden would not betray her.”
“I hope he has a choice if it comes to that.”
She hoped so, too, as the evening closed in around them and Arden did not return. In the failing light Evénn’s face had the expression of one trying to make sense of a puzzle that defied scrutiny. She was about to ask him about it when the wind shifted and strengthened. It came hissing through the pines, gently tossing their boughs, and bringing with it the heady scent of salt. Her wound and the seclusion of their camp had until now allowed her only the merest glimpse of the sea. That very morning the mists clinging to the mountain slopes had parted to reveal a gleam of gold along the rim of the world. Now in the dusk, with her head full of the lush air, Agarwen strained her ears and reached out with her mind in the impossible hope that somehow from miles away she might catch the sound of the waves on that shore.
One night nearly five years ago now Arden had told her that the wind in the trees sometimes reminded him of that sound. The two of them had been lying in camp and staring up at the stars of the Great Wake when he said it. He was quiet for a moment, and then quite unexpectedly began reciting a long poem about Narin’s ship as it sailed through the darkness the night before he first sighted this wide land. His journey across the ocean west of Talor had been long and resolute, rich in the discovery of islands whose existence had been unknown or but dimly guessed from the tales of lost mariners. Now he was sailing empty seas no man or elf had ever travelled, and Narin’s heart wavered, longing for wife and home, and a life that seemed to have vanished away.
When Arden was done, he said that the stars glittering above them in the sky were the same as those which had shone down on Narin; and, like the Great Wake, his ship’s wake stretched out glowing behind her, back and back into a dark past without horizon.
“So, tell me of the sea,” Agarwen had said to him eagerly. Although it was not the first time he had quoted poetry – he carried a small book of it in his pack – never had she heard such passion in him that was not anger; and hearing it moved her. So long a pause followed that Agarwen feared she had offended him by asking for more; that this breach in Arden’s wonted reserve would close and scar proudly over; and that the keen, lively voice which spoke to her from beyond the years would lapse back into silence.
Arden sat up and turned towards her. She could feel his eyes upon her. She did not know if she wished she could see them. Then all at once the sea came pouring out of him: the sweet tang of salt water; the green curl of a sunlit wave; the vanishing caress of foam; the wash of the breaker on the sand; the snap of a sail turning through the wind’s eye; the slap of a wave against the bow; the music of water along the side; the exaltation of racing down the wind in a quiet world; the majesty of a storm upon the shore; the peace of floating just at the surface, rising and falling on the swell, eyes shut to the sun.
Yet for all the rapture in his voice there was something he did not express, something she could not quite detect, though she knew it was there. He hid it in the silence beyond his sunlit love of the sea. For in every tale he told he was alone, as if summer wind and sun and glittering waves were the sole companions of his youth. That he could reveal and withhold so much in an hour’s conversation only made him seem lonelier.
“What troubles you, Agarwen?” Evénn asked her.

She came back from her reverie. It was fully dark now. She could no longer see his features, but the disquieting spectral glow of his eyes told her he was looking at her.
“Me? I was just about to ask you the same question. You look puzzled. What is it?”
Evénn paused, as if considering whether to answer her question or press for a reply to his own.
“I am,” he said at last. “Arden has twice looked into the eyes of the red dragon and come away unscathed. The first time I understand. He was a boy beneath the dragon’s notice. But this time, despite all his contempt for the beings of this world, the dragon would have known he posed a threat and sought to ensnare him. Why didn’t he?”
“I have found,” Agarwen responded, “that riddles are often better left alone. The more we puzzle over them, the more difficult they become.”
“Indeed. Perhaps you are right. The abbot at the monastery where I stayed said as much to me once. Let us speak of something else.”
“Well,” she said with a laugh, “only an elf could call seven centuries at a monastery a ‘stay,’ but at the risk of making my head hurt even more, I have two more questions for you.”
“You are curious,” he said, as a smile crept over his face. “What is the first?”
“Why can the dragons perceive some enchantments and not others?”
“Do you know any spells?” Evénn asked.
“No, none besides those you taught us for the bow and the sword. The Masters say I am not yet ready to learn them.”
“Then you need to understand something of their nature. Enchantments draw on the power that is immanent in the world and in the souls god gave us. It is always there. Our eyes see it, our ears hear it. Yet we do not perceive it. The ten thousand petty things that make up our lives conceal the fullness of reality from us. The words of an incantation draw back this veil. Through them we can touch that power, harness it, direct it. But in doing so we also make it easier for others to see.
“As beings of spirit that have become incarnate the dragons are more sensitive to the world around them than we are, but even for them it is difficult to discern one small spell in the midst of so much power. It is like hearing the sound of one pebble in an avalanche, or seeing a single tree in a distant forest. From far away only a mass of trees and undergrowth is visible. Picking out a single bush or sapling is impossible until we are close by. By contrast a mighty tree that is far taller than those around it stands out, even from a distance. The lesser spells of healing, or of stealth and concealment, for example, employ only a minute portion of the world’s power. The dragons can only sense them for what they are if they are nearby.”
“So that is why we could not use the healing spells when the dragon was hunting us.”
“Yes, and it is also why he felt them when he flew over the hollow where we drew the arrow from your shoulder. He was close enough to tell the difference between the raw strength of the world and its more focused form. Though hours had passed since we’d been there, he could perceive it like a distant echo.”
“And that is also why he knew of your enchantment at Prisca,” she said. “It was like the giant tree towering above the forest.”
“Precisely. It was obvious to him, just as it was to us.”
“I think I understand now. Thank you for explaining.”
“And your second question?” Evénn asked.
“You’re sure you don’t mind?”
“Not at all. I shall answer it if I can.”
“Why weren’t we all killed by what you did?”
“All spells can be guided to a greater or lesser degree. It depends on the power of the words and the strength of the one speaking them. When we disguised the horses to look like cart horses, you could still see their true appearance, couldn’t you?”
“Yes, if I looked hard at them.”
“That was because the incantation was not directed at you. In the same way, you can see the Valley, because you know it is there and have lived, as it were, within the enchantment. To those who do not know the Valley is there, it is hidden entirely.”
“Could the dragons see it?”
“If by chance they flew directly over the Valley, I daresay they would feel something, but the words that protect the Valley have been at work for so many centuries that they have merged with the power of the world. Yet, if the dragons went there on purpose, knowing what they were seeking and where it should be, they would in time pierce the veils of magic which protect the Valley.”
“I pray that day never comes.”
“As do I, but to continue with your other question, I was able to focus the incantation on our enemies, just as with the horses. That is why you were affected, but survived.”
“That must have been difficult, to control that much power so exactly.”
“It was. Preventing it from killing everyone was a large part of what exhausted me.”
“And the other part?”
“A great deal of my strength was required to make the enchantment work at all.”
“When you taught us about the bow and sword, you said that the words would enable us to unleash their full might. Would it have been different if you had held the sword of adamant?”
“You are perceptive as well as curious, Agarwen. The answer is yes. I could, shall we say, have aimed more precisely.”
“But the dragon would have known we had the sword.”
“Just so. They all would have known, and they would burn these mountains down to find us.”
As she considered his words and remembered the slaughtered soldiers in the streets of Prisca, Agarwen grew quiet. She had come to understand the difference between the magic in the songs which told of the battles of Evénn and his old companions with the dragons, and the brutal reality that the people in those songs had to suffer. She had known Evénn as a friend and a teacher, a trusty comrade on their quest, as she liked to call it. Yet his normally serene and affable bearing cloaked a terrible strength and a will to use it that she found daunting. Niall, Arden, and Master Jalonn, all were dangerous men, and Agarwen was long accustomed to such company. She, too, was dangerous, practiced in the weapons of war and ruthless in wielding them when she had to be. Yet Evénn was more perilous than any of them, far more.
“Evénn,” she said after much thought, “sometimes you frighten me.”


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