03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 14.1

Fourteen

One week later, on the morning of the thirteenth day after they had reached Baran’s eastern camp, the companions at last prepared to resume their journey. Despite early progress, Agarwen’s shoulder had taken longer to heal to Evénn’s satisfaction than they had hoped. Until she showed herself able to use her left arm without pain and regained a fair measure of her strength, he refused to pronounce her fit to continue. No one chafed more at the delay than she did. It was only yesterday, finally, that Evénn declared her well enough to fight.
“We leave in the morning then,” Jalonn said, with no sign of the impatience he felt.
Yesterday had also seen a hawk arrive in the camp, bringing word from Master Raynall. It was one of the dozens he had sent forth with the same message in the hope of finding the companions at one of the established camps, even one so meager as Baran’s. The bird had settled onto Jalonn’s outstretched arm, just as he had been trained to do. Jalonn removed the message from its protective sheath on the hawk’s leg, deciphered it, and read it aloud:
“Day 30. Dragon south much of winter. Else Hall of Kings. South postern unwatched, corridor partly blocked. Arden knows it. News dearly bought. Remember god. R.”
“The thirtieth day,” Jalonn said, as he reckoned the days since they had left the Valley. “Let me see. That would be two days before we reached Prisca. I wonder if he’s heard news of that yet. Nevertheless, his message at least explains why the dragon took so long to arrive. He was off to the south somewhere. That was our good fortune.”
“Then why did Agarwen and I find him in the Hall of Kings?”
“In dreams all things are possible, Arden,” said Jalonn. “And the Hall is his usual dwelling. It is where he receives his tribute and his slaves. He chose to be seen there.”
“At all events,” Evénn said, “the City and the Hall are where we must seek him until we can gather more news. I am guessing that by ‘south postern’ the Master means the door by which you escaped, Arden.”
“He must,” Arden replied. “Besides the South Gate there’s no other entrance on that side.”
“That’s true,” Niall added. “But guarded or not, getting to it unseen will be difficult. The ground south of Narinen has always been open fields; and the last time I was near the City, all the greenery that once grew between the foot of the walls and the road had been cut down. A pity. For the walls were ringed in yellow roses. But it’s been many years since I was there.”
“Nature is stubborn and ruthless, Niall,” Evénn said. “Perhaps they have grown back.”
“Perhaps,” he responded, “but even so, even if there is cover at the foot of the walls again, we’ll still need to get close unobserved, or it will all be for nothing. And from what Master Raynall’s message says, we may not be able to get our horses inside. So we’ll need to leave them somewhere.”
“I did not foresee bringing the horses in with us in any event,” Jalonn remarked. “The magic of the dragon lies heavy on the City. It will smother all minor spells of stealth and concealment, and an incantation strong enough to counter it would only reveal us to him. So we will be unable to conceal ourselves by that means. We can cross the City more swiftly and more safely without them. We shall have far to go also, if we come in by the postern door.”
“Why is that, Master Jalonn?” asked Agarwen.
“Think of the design of the City, Agarwen.”
“I see,” she said after a moment’s reflection. “The Hall of Kings fronts on the north side of the square. To arrive unseen we must circle around to the north and approach it from the rear.”
“Exactly. But first things first. For now we need only worry about getting to the postern.”
The next morning they set out, riding south and slightly east, working their way slowly down the high ridge. The camp of Baran lay midway between the scholars’ town and the wide gap where the Great Road crossed the Coastal Range, in all a distance of some fifty miles. The City stood southeast of them, across nearly forty miles of fertile coastlands which rolled down from the uplands and foothills beneath the mountains. Through the dark trunks of the pines they could often see the City as they descended into the wooded valley which was nestled between this ridge and the last line of hills before the plain. Despite the destruction of the siege and a generation of neglect, she still shone in the morning light as she had always done, her walls high and white amid the fields of green. Beyond the walls, beyond the pale ribbon of the strand which they could glimpse at times through the hills beside the shore, the sea glittered golden to the far horizon.
Gone were the many banners that had once lined the City’s walls and gone were the many towers behind them, all but one. Narinen's pride had fallen before the dragon, but still she shone for them, half in sunlight, half in memory. All morning she was in view if they would just lift their heads from the ground before their horses’ feet, and let the light and warmth of the sun strike their hooded faces. But though they stole many a glance that way, especially Arden and Niall who saw their home before them, and Agarwen who had never before seen the City, they did not tarry in their course to gaze at greater length. Nor did they speak. Each conversed with his own thoughts or memories of Narinen.
For Evénn, who had first visited Narinen more than eighteen hundred years ago, long before the dragons first came, that inner conversation passed from kings and queens, to dogs which had barked at him in the street as he walked by, to seeing the foundations of those very walls being laid stone by stone. What were for him remembrances of times and people, for the others was the history of ages long gone, set down in scrolls and books or rehearsed in song. Jalonn thought mainly of his service with Mahar in the last months, and tried to call up every detail of the City’s streets and ways. Arden and Niall recalled their glad childhood and its end. It made them feel both old and young. Of Narinen Agarwen herself had no memories but those she borrowed from history and song and the stories told by Niall and, more rarely, by Arden. So she tried to summon up all she had learned over the years.
Not long after noon as they were about to lose sight of Narinen behind the hills to the east and enter the valley, Agarwen slowed and cast the last of many glances across the miles of fields. She remembered that Arden and Niall usually called the City her, which was the custom of those who dwelt here between the Green Hills and the sea.
“She is beautiful still,” Agarwen said, breaking the spell of silent hours. “How she must have shone in her day of glory.”
“Narinen has always been lovely,” Evénn said.
“And the day of her glory is yet to come. You will see it, Agarwen,” Arden stated with all certainty.
“So be it,” Niall intoned, as if in response to a prayer.
“So be it, indeed,” Jalonn muttered up ahead.
“The one tower you see there, Agarwen,” Evénn said, “is the east tower of the Hall of Kings. That is where we shall find the beast.”
“The other tower was broken in the siege,” Arden added.
“Aye,” said Jalonn with unexpected passion. “I saw it fall. The silver dragon swooped down upon the tower with great speed. He came from the east and struck it just as they did when they shattered the gates, but those towers were built in ancient days by the Builders of the Kingdom, with the aid of the elven stonewrights of Talor, whom Evénn’s father sent to assist us.”
Jalonn paused as he said this and looked over his shoulder at Evénn behind him.
“I remember the day,” Evénn nodded, “the emissaries of your king, Saereth, arrived in Elashandra and came before my father to ask for our aid. Five centuries had passed since your people had crossed the sea. We heard little from you in those years during which you were spreading across this land. You had grown much in that time, though a short while it seemed to us. We rejoiced that you still remembered our old friendship. My father gladly granted Saereth’s request. Many of us returned across the sea with your ambassadors and we marveled at the mighty works in stone your people had already taken in hand. I was there to witness Narinen’s walls and the towers of the king begin rising.”
“It must have been wondrous to behold,” Jalonn replied, “but to see the western tower withstand the dragon was a thing of terror and beauty. Around and around the tower he whirled, striking it a dozen times and more. In his last few attacks he soared far aloft and vanished into the smoke, and I began to think that the craft of our two peoples had defeated him. It was but a brief hope in an hour of despair. For always he returned, stooping upon the tower with such awful speed that even from my vantage point atop the Sea Gate he was little more than a blur of silver. In the end there came a mighty crack, and a dreadful pause, and the tower collapsed upon itself. A cloud of dust and smoke boiled outwards, and I lost all sight of the center of the City. The rain began soon afterwards.
“Later that afternoon there was a break in the rain for a little while. I looked up from my place by the Sea Gate – your father was near me the entire time, Arden – and briefly I could see as far as the square. The eastern tower was still there. No beast was attacking it. After that I did not see it again until I came to the square shortly before dawn. But in that instant when the veils of smoke were parted, I knew that they had given up, that there was one thing that day which defeated them. I recalled the history of the towers and how your people, Evénn, had helped us build them long ago. That this tower survived seemed to me a prophecy: only the work of men and elves together will defeat the dragons. Well, the tower stands, and we are here. The time has come.”
“Well said, Master Jalonn,” Evénn said with a smile. “May all your prophecies prove true.”
But Jalonn was done talking, his only answer a backward glance and half a smile. Yet the unaccustomed ardor in his voice had lifted their hearts and hopes, so that they felt they could still see the City and the tower gleaming far off in the sunlight. They had all heard Master Jalonn speak of the Fall before, but always as a soldier, analyzing troops and tactics. None, including Arden, had ever heard him speak like this.
By now they had descended to the narrow valley floor, where in the deep shade of the ridge they splashed along through the shallows of the stream that ran at its base, gathering in all the waters of every rill and brook that leaped down the slopes on either side of them. For the rest of the day they followed it south, listening to its voice grow louder with every mile and watching the eastern ridge sink down towards the plain, until in the dusk they came near the valley’s end and made camp. They set a watch and lit no fire.
At first light Jalonn climbed the last slopes of the ridge to relieve Niall and see what the dawn held in store. The land lay veiled in a thin morning mist. Below him the stream, having escaped the confinement of the valley, widened and slowed as it bent its course eastward around the foot of the hill. Further away to the south he thought he could make out the line of the Great Road, beyond which rose the ghostly watchtowers of a fortress. The glint of moving steel there told him that other eyes besides his own looked out across the rolling green plains; and doubtless there were others whom he could not yet see, scouts and patrols hidden by the fog and folds in the land. He remembered how open and welcoming those fields had seemed when he first came here long ago. Not so now. In a few hours the mist would burn away, and anyone moving there would stand naked before the watchers in the fortress.
Jalonn could not allow that. Even before their battle at Prisca had raised the alarm, he had never intended to travel the last miles between the mountains and the City by day. But he wished to remind himself of the land before attempting to cross it by night, and perhaps also to catch in the young dawn some reflection of what had been lost before the light of day could burn it away. He smirked to himself at this self-indulgence, and dismissed it from his mind as he settled in to watch the welcome mist over the land slowly dissipate. Darkness was their ally now as much as their enemy.
Hours later the others came to join him, leaving the wolf and Argos to guard the horses. Now that they were here, it was necessary to discuss how they could best approach the City and complete the first task of their errand. The time to cast all in the balance was at hand.
“Our first need is darkness, which we must use to come near the darkness of our foe,” Jalonn was saying. “As it chances – ”
“If chance you call it,” Evénn interrupted.
“Yes, if you call it that. The moon is now waning. In five days she will be new again. That is the night we must come to the City. If we enter just before midnight, we will be able to reach the Hall of Kings three or four hours before the sun rises, perhaps sooner if all goes well.”
He looked at the faces of the others to see if any of them wished to speak. None did.
“Arden,” Jalonn continued, “you are the most familiar with the south postern. What can you tell us about it?”
“There’s little to tell. You have all heard me speak of it before. It is three hundred yards east of the South Gate. The doors at either end and the corridor in between are wide enough for two on foot or one on horseback. The passage is straight and about forty feet long. What blocks it and how difficult that will make getting through, we won’t know until we get there. And get the door open, mind you. Maybe it is unwatched, but it is certainly not unbarred. The dragon may despise us, but his men fear us. They will not be so lax as to leave the back door open.”
“True,” Jalonn replied. “As I recall, there are bolts securing the outer door, but no lock?”
“Yes, the outer door can be opened only from within. There are three long bolts of steel in the door, which is made from planks of oak six inches thick.”
“To break the door by force or enchantment is out of the question. Either would serve to alert the enemy to our presence. We might as well knock on the gate.”
“Excuse me, captain, we’re here to slay the dragon. Is he at home this evening?” said Niall in a low but playful tone, which earned him a searing glance from Jalonn.
“Amusing, Niall, as ever,” he said.
“I beg your pardon, Master, but let’s get down to it. At least one of us has to get inside the City to unbolt that door. I can think of only two ways in right now, through one of the gates or over the wall.”
“I’ll go,” said Arden.
“No, I think not,” Jalonn replied with some authority.
“It’s all right. I’ll go,” Arden repeated.
“No, Arden,” Evénn said. “You won’t. I agree with Master Jalonn here. You bear the bow. It would be unwise to send you in with it, and equally so to part you from it. We cannot risk losing either of you, let alone both. It also appears that the dragon knows who you are and can find you with his mind. For that reason it is too perilous to send you.”
“Precisely,” Jalonn agreed.
“I would tell him nothing,” Arden said, quite bitterly.
“Not willingly, perhaps, but you might have no choice. Indeed you might not even know what he was gleaning from your mind as you slept.”
Nothing,” Arden growled the word at them.
“I am sorry, Arden,” Jalonn said. “You cannot be the one.”
Arden glowered at them both, but knew they were right.
“That would make me the logical choice,” Niall said, with a sympathetic glance in Arden’s direction. “I’ll go. When shall I start and when shall we meet?”
“We’ll meet you at midnight on the night of the new moon, five days from now. When you leave depends on what we are going to do about the horses, and how long you think it will take you to get in,” Jalonn answered him.
“Well then,” asked Niall, “what shall we do?”
“I have an idea,” Arden said, still angry, “if you wish to hear it.”
“Go ahead,” Jalonn responded.
“I’ve been considering this for some time, since I guessed we would have to approach our business this way. Do you remember the house where you found me, Jalonn?”
Niall stared at Arden in surprise, then exchanged shocked glances with Agarwen. A pained frown flitted across Evénn’s face. Jalonn’s expression did not change. He needed no reminder, but he paused before answering.
“Of course,” he said.
“I think it could be,” he hesitated, “useful to us. Beneath the house and gardens was a vast, strongly built cellar. Its walls and floor were of brick, and stone pillars held up its ceiling. It is probably still there, and I think we can get in.”
“But how, Arden?” Evénn asked. “You said the house was destroyed. Isn’t the cellar door buried in the ruins?”
“There were two entrances, my friend,” said Arden, “one in the kitchen, but the other was on the far side of the low hill between the gardens and the sea. Even in those days, when the grounds were well tended, the holly bushes which grew near this door made it hard to find, if you didn’t know where to look for it. After – after all this time the holly has no doubt grown over the door. Inside there will be room enough for us and our horses. With a little luck we may even find provisions.”
Arden stopped for an instant, grimaced, then went on, with an irony that made Agarwen wince.
“And Niall also knows where the house is.”
Jalonn’s eyes shifted to Niall who was sitting to his right. His head was down, his eyes fixed on the ground. Arden had never before openly acknowledged this connection between them.
“Niall?” he said, his eyebrow raised.
“I know the house.”
“Arden,” Jalonn said, turning back to him, “are you sure of this?”
“It’s the best way, Jalonn,” Arden replied. “I would’ve suggested it even if you had sent me into the City. I know how the … people who lived there would feel about it. They were strong and lovers of their homeland.”
“So they were,” whispered Niall.
“Then I think it will serve us well,” Jalonn went on. “It is about two miles from the City and three of us already know it.”
He looked at Agarwen and Evénn, who both nodded their assent.
“It is settled then. We shall meet at the south postern door on the night of the new moon, six nights from now. Since the City is only thirty miles from here that will leave us ample time to get into position. Niall your route to the City will be more direct, but it may take you several days to find a way in. The gates and walls will be closely guarded, and the dragon’s men will have their eyes open. You must avoid conflict if you can. I am sure the beast has not forgotten us.”
“I’ll need a night to get close enough to study the situation. If all else fails, I am sure I can get over the wall.”
“That will be a last resort,” Evénn said. “Anyone attempting to scale those white walls will be clearly visible even at night; and you will not be able to see if any guards are above you.”
“True, but guards patrol in patterns.”
“Yet patterns may be broken,” Jalonn said. “Attempt that way only if no other offers itself.”
“Agreed,” Niall answered.
“You will also need a place to hide once you are there.”
“Those will be plentiful. Though many still dwell in the City, no more than half the houses are occupied if the reports are true, and there are also many empty stores and warehouses.”
“We shall leave that to you then. As for ourselves, our route will be more complex. We must cross the Great Road once more, then circle around towards the coast. It will probably be best if we went much farther south and came at the house of Gwinlan from that direction.”
“Didn’t there used to be a small bridge over a river just before the Prisca road joins the Great Road?” Evénn asked.
“Yes,” Arden replied. “This very stream will lead us there. It wanders along not far from the road before it is forced to turn by the hills and crosses under the bridge. From there it flows south and east to the sea. Near the road the banks are high and steep, which will help conceal us for some distance.”
They resolved that Niall would leave well after dark, and the rest of them would begin their circuitous route to the south the following night. Niall spent the remainder of the day sorting through his gear to decide what was essential for him to take. The less, the better, he thought, so he could travel more quickly. Aside from his weapons and some food, he settled on a coil of rope and a small grapnel he kept in his saddlebag. He just might have to climb the wall after all.
Throughout the day the others took turns watching the road. A steady flow of troops on foot and horseback moved up and down it in both directions. Occasionally a lone horseman hastened by, bringing news or orders to the fortified camp which guarded the mountain gap. It sat just to the south of the road not five miles from them, with walls of gray stone crudely cut and fitted. Four tall wooden towers full of watchful eyes rose above it, one at each corner. The ground on all sides around it was bleak and bare. Not a thing grew there but the chevaux de fries and sharpened stakes embedded in regularly spaced pits, which gave the camp an added layer of defenses. There was constant movement along the single dirt road which branched off the Great Road and led to the camp's massive gate.
“Just what army are they expecting to appear to assault that place?” Arden asked Evénn late that day as they sat upon the southernmost hilltop taking their turn on guard.
“The dragons distrust each other as much as they fear those they oppress. The one they think they can control with terror and cruelty, the other they know they cannot.”
“Even though they have worked together for more than a generation?”
“Even so,” the elf replied. “To you that is a long time, but not to them. And the evil cooperate only out of necessity. Each of them knows the drive to dominate which his own heart cherishes, and reads the same lust in all other hearts, dragons or not. In the case of each other, they are correct, but they cannot imagine that we are not like them.”
“They believe we wish to replace them ourselves?”
“Yes.”
“But surely they know that this did not happen after you overthrew them,” Arden protested.
“Ah, but they think that only a balance of terror can maintain the peace, and that if we made no attempt to conquer as they did, it was because we feared to try.”
“It was bad enough,” Arden said thoughtfully, “when I thought the dragons were like us, creatures of the flesh. Then I met you, and you taught me what the dragons really were. Ever since that night I’ve wrestled with the thought that beings of spirit – the firstborn of creation who saw the face of god – can be dominated by such a desire to do evil. It baffles me.”
“But they are like us, Arden. We are beings of spirit just as they are, and malice has ruled elves and men all too often through the ages. Good and evil are choices at first, before they become anything else.”
Until darkness fell, with the promise of rain in the gray laden clouds which had been rolling in from the west all day, they watched the troops come and go like so many ants. In the gloom several smaller groups slipped out of the gate and rode off in different directions. It was too dark and they were too far away for Arden to make them out clearly, but he could hear Evénn murmuring to himself as he counted them.
“Scouts,” he said after peering at them for a time. “Six groups of twelve. One is headed directly north, but should pass to the east of us. We’ll have to keep our eyes on them.”
Soon it began to pour. It was the cold soaking rain that can fall for days on end by the sea in the heart of winter. There was a certain peace in its calm persistence. On a hot summer’s evening it would have been soothing as well, bringing ease and comfort after the swelter of the day, the sort of rain that elicits a sigh of relief, a delight to see and hear and feel upon the face. It could make the old feel young again. Yet this was no summer night on which the earth herself needs cooling. It was the cold dark of mid-winter, and only the embers of wrath in Arden’s soul kept his spirits from becoming as sodden as his cloak.
After an hour the scouts approached out of the darkness. They stopped at the foot of the hill where Arden and Evénn sat wordlessly watching them. All the scouts paused, listening to the night, heads bowed and cocked to one side or the other, except for the last of them, who seemed preoccupied and uncomfortable. He patted his mount’s neck disconsolately from time to time, or suddenly peered upward as if his glowering displeasure could stare down the rain. The rider was heavily cloaked and hooded, and facing the wrong way for Arden to be able to see him clearly, but something in his manner and the pale, beardless blur of the face which he raised to the sky convinced Arden that he was little more than a boy.
Eventually the scouts moved on. Though darkness and rain swallowed them up almost at once, Evénn continued to stare in the direction they had gone.
“At least it rains on them, too,” Arden said at length, still thinking of the last rider.
“That is god’s way,” Evénn answered quietly.
“One of us should follow them,” Arden said after a moment.
“I’ll go. Jalonn will be here to relieve you soon. You return to the camp and tell Niall what we have seen. I’ll be back before he leaves.”
As soon as he spoke, he rose and hurried after them. The wolf went with him. Argos remained beside Arden. Soon the elf was out of sight. Arden sat waiting for Jalonn, staring into the night, but there was no more to see. Jalonn came less than a half hour later. Arden apprised him of the scouts and the other forces which had been using the road, and returned to the camp to seek out Niall.
He found him sitting quietly beneath a tree, as much out of the rain as could be. Agarwen was beside him, resting a friendly hand on his shoulder and chatting quietly with him about the days to come. In their voices he could hear their friendship, which was warm and open and often playful. It had been many years since Arden last knew the savor of such contact. He had shunned it. Now, as he drew closer to them, he realized with a pang that he envied and feared them.
For years he had told himself that to slay the dragon would content him; and if it cost him his life to do so, his life would well lost. But he did not want to bear home to Niall’s wife and children the news that husband and father lay dead on some shore or mountain and would not come home again; or to tell Agarwen’s father, old Ramas, the chief carpenter and woodwright of the Valley, who had always been kind to Arden as a boy, that his hope of grandchildren had proved false and his fears for his daughter’s fate as a Ranger true. Their lives were hard enough and their worlds so narrow already. And Arden knew that for his own sake, too, he did not want to lose his friends. Not now. Not again.
He told Niall all he had seen while on watch, and that Evénn would soon bring more news of the scouts. He cautioned him that there were certainly many such parties of scouts across all the coastlands and approaches to the City. Without his horse he would be much more vulnerable if discovered. He thought he could see Niall smiling at him in the darkness as he said this. Niall patted Agarwen’s hand and stood up.
“You should join Jalonn on guard,” he said to her. “It’s time you started shouldering some of the burden around here. After all, what’s an arrow in the shoulder to a Ranger?”
“Well, it’s painful, but less so than that pun,” she replied.
“May you never know a worse pain,” Niall answered and embraced her. “I’ll see you when the moon is new.”
“But it will be dark.”
“I’ll get by.”
“Keep your head up,” she said.
“You mean down.”
“Right,” she said, her voice conveying sadness and amusement equally. “God guide you.”
When she was gone, Niall and Arden began to shift their camp and horses up the ridge and out of the valley, lest the scouts cross the hills and return south along the stream. Evénn came back in the midst of this and leant a hand. Afterwards he passed on to Niall what he had learned by following the scouts for several miles.
“For the most part, these are no ordinary troopers on patrol. For all their care, they move with stealth and speed. Be careful of them.”
“For the most part?” Niall asked.
“Well, there is one with this detachment who doesn’t seem eager to be there, perhaps a new recruit on his first patrol. You saw him, Arden?”
“I saw him.”
“I’ll be careful then,” Niall murmured. “It’s time I got going. I might need several days to find a way in.”
They both nodded at him. Niall wrapped himself in one of the black cloaks they had stripped from the dead troopers at Prisca, and shouldered his pack. He clasped Arden’s hand briefly and was gone. Arden and Evénn hoped they would see him again soon and thought of the next days. Finally Arden sat back against a tree and went to sleep.

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Chapter 14.2

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