03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 14.2

Hours later the return of Agarwen and the wolf awakened him. When the scouts had not come back along the eastern side of the hills, Jalonn had sent her to seek them in the valley. She had spotted them several miles north, then hastened back to warn the others of their coming. Though the rain had removed any trace of the companions, it was good that they had moved their camp. For the scouts passed right through that area, watched closely from the ridge by Arden and Agarwen and from the hillside opposite them by Evénn and Jalonn. At times they and the scouts were within twenty feet of each other, but the companions let them go by. Once they were gone, Jalonn and Evénn shadowed them to make sure they left the hills and were on their way back to their camp across the Road. They followed them almost as far as the Road itself, and watched until they saw the camp gates close behind them.
By the time Evénn and Jalonn returned, a dreary dawn was looming in the eastern sky. The rain did not look to be ending soon. Throughout the day they took turns resting, then watching the camp and Road to learn all they could before they made their own move that night. Nothing seemed unusual. There were no signs of trouble, or that the enemy had any suspicions that they were near. Clearly Niall was, if not safe, then at least alive and undetected. They all wondered how far he had traveled and where he might be lying hidden until night returned.
Except when necessary, the companions did not move or speak through all the hours of murky daylight. Only when it was fully dark did they begin to make ready their departure. As Niall had done the night before, they assumed the black cloaks of the dragon’s men. It was a small advantage the cloaks conferred, but in battle a bare instant’s hesitation on the part of an enemy could be all they needed. Yet they feared any such encounter – for they were too few to fight their way through to the City – and they hoped to avoid all combats but one. With every step of their journey, secrecy pressed more urgently upon them.
Three hours after dark, Jalonn and Agarwen left the camp with the horses, and crossing the hills they found Arden and Evénn in the middle of the eastern slope of the last hill. Argos and the wolf were further down, concealed in the underbrush. The scouts had gone by nearly two hours earlier on their way north; and by the time they returned the companions knew they must be far away.
For the land north of the Great Road was now bare of all but grass. The many copses which had once grown nearby had fallen to the axe or perished in flames; of the old cottages, farms, and country houses, overgrown mounds were the sole marker; even the stone walls dividing one man’s land from another’s were gone. Only the hills remained. Low and green, widely spaced like long, slow swells of the barren sea, they ran from northwest to southeast and steadily bent the course of the valley stream towards the Road. With no hope of cover or shelter there, the companions had to cross the Road well before daylight and press on until they came to more remote areas where the relics of house and wall and grove still traced the patchwork of an unfallen world.
Yesterday’s rain had continued with few breaks until just after sunset today. Though it was oppressive, it made the darkness darker and helped hide them from the scouts from the fort. Even so they did not dare to ride faster than a walk, lest the sound of their horses’ hooves, muffled though they were by the rain and soft turf, give them away. Whenever they could they traveled in the bed of the stream to avoid leaving any tracks. The downpour also masked the sound of them splashing through the water, but on the far side of each hill they passed, another stream appeared from the north to swell the stream they were following. It grew steadily in depth until it reached the horses’ knees. Soon it would be a river and too deep to travel in easily.
Three hours into their journey, Arden returned from his position several hundred yards ahead of them, where he had left Argos and the wolf on guard. He came up at a fast walk and reined in.
“About five hundred yards from here is the last of these hills,” he said, “which continues across the road for some miles. It blocks the river’s path eastward and turns it southeast towards the Road. Once we reach that hill, the banks will become much steeper. That will help conceal us, but it could also trap us if we are seen. We’ll need to know if there are any guards at the bridge.”
“How far from the bend in the river to the bridge?” Evénn asked.
“Probably two hundred yards.”
“Wait for me there. My eyes are better in the dark than yours. I’ll take the wolf with me. If there’s any difficulty, I’ll send him for you.”
“Go,” Jalonn said. “We’ll meet you at the bend in the river.”
Evénn dismounted and loped swiftly off into the night back the way Arden had come. Arden, Agarwen, and Jalonn waited a few minutes, then set off. They found Argos where Arden had left him. Of the wolf there was no sign, but the hound stood alert and staring in the direction of the bridge, his head and ears moving slightly to pick up the least sound. Soon they reached the last hill. They rode far enough along the river for the banks to rise on either side and conceal them completely. Dismounting they went forward to the bend and looked along the river’s course towards the bridge, which they could just make out through the murk. They thought they could catch the faintest glimmer of light at either end of it, probably from guardhouses. Here they stopped to await Evénn.
He arrived a half hour later. None of them heard or saw him and the wolf coming until the last instant. Only the cry of an owl signaled that he was near.
“We must hurry,” he said. “The guards will soon awaken.”
“How many?” Jalonn asked.
“Just two, one at either end of the bridge in a small shack, but they were sleeping when I left them.”
Arden could hear the smile in his voice.
“What did you do?” Agarwen asked.
“Time for that later,” Jalonn answered her.
As swiftly as they could, they rode down the banks and into the shallows, but the nearer they came to the bridge, the steeper and narrower the banks became, forcing them further into the swelling river; and the more the banks narrowed and confined the waters, the more rapid and turbulent the current became, until it hurried them along towards the bridge. The Rangers struggled to maintain control of their mounts, all whose years of training were barely enough to stave off panic. Only Moonglow braved the rushing and shoving of the water calmly, as Evénn bent low beside his neck and whispered in his ear. Argos and the wolf swam strongly ahead of them, though the swirling of the stream twisted them first one way, then another. They reached the bridge first and shot beneath it and out the other side. The companions came quickly behind them in succession, one after another, ducking their heads at the last moment to avoid striking them on the timbers which supported the bridge.
In another two hundred yards the banks began to sink and the channel grew wider. Presently the river slowed and shallowed enough that they were riding comfortably again. In another quarter of a mile it swung east once more and they emerged on its south bank. They rested briefly beneath a small group of elms not far away.
“Tell me, someone,” Agarwen said, “tell me we won’t be crossing any more rivers any time soon. Just now dragon fire seems preferable.”
“Don’t say that,” Evénn said humorlessly. “Not even in jest.”
Agarwen looked sourly at him, then at the others. They were all drenched and looked quite miserable. The rain kept falling. A few minutes later, she turned to Evénn, who stood looking back in the direction of the bridge.
“What happened at the bridge?” she asked.
“The guards were both very young and looking rather drowsy. So it was easy to surprise them. I used a hold to put them to sleep.”
“Why did you spare them?”
“They were boys, Agarwen. And because sometimes the living are more silent than the dead.”
Arden chuckled at this.
“What he means,” Arden said, “is that dead they are witnesses to the presence of an enemy, but alive they will be too scared to tell their sergeant they allowed someone to sneak up on them.”
“We’ve rested long enough,” Jalonn said.
“Which way then?” Agarwen asked.
“South. It’s after midnight, and we need to find shelter before morning.”

The dockyard and harbor were shutting down after an exceptionally busy day for the middle of winter. A half dozen ships had put in that morning and the men of the wharves had been hard put to unload all their cargo. Some of it had already been moved into warehouses or carted up to the City, but much still sat on the docks, waiting for the wagons which would haul it to Narinen the next day. The sun had set two hours ago and after a long day of toil the wharf rats, as the laborers on the docks called themselves, were making their way home, locking the gates and warehouses behind them. Only the main gate remained open. Beside it stood a small building at which the watchmen began and ended their patrols of the dockyards. Beyond the gate was the broad paved roadway that ran between the Long Walls from the water to the Sea Gate of Narinen.
The smell of the sea was strong in the harbor, borne on the same light breeze that rolled small swells between the headlands from the northeast. Despite the arrival of so many merchant ships that morning, Niall saw the harbor as nearly empty. Gone was the forest of men-of-war he had marveled at for hours on end when a boy. Their lofty masts, square sails, crossed black yards, and endless miles of cordage were the stuff of his dreams. Those tall ships circled the world, escorting merchant ships, charting islands, and mapping distant coastlands. On their return they made the City hum with news of sundry lands beyond the great seas and the strange seeming customs of foreigners. Now a few broken masts jutted up from the waters here and there, marking the place where their burning hulls had slipped hissing to the many shadowed bottom.
That was a generation ago, and Niall had been a young man then, full of such hopes and expectations as young men have. Though he had not been here that awful day, six months later at Sufra he had witnessed the same ruthless slaughter, the same fruitless courage, the same horror. With a pitiful handful of survivors, Niall had taken refuge in the woods and hills nearby. Every day they fought the enemy who dogged their heels. Every day their numbers dwindled. Every day they withdrew further into the wilderness.
When the Rangers found them, there had been not quite a dozen of them left. By unexpected paths the Rangers led them away from the enemy, but hardly to safety. Four of his comrades died of their wounds along the way. One lost his footing on an icy mountain and slid over a precipice. Another drowned crossing a river. Three more froze to death in the bitter, bitter winter of that year as they fought their way across the high northern desert which stretched westward from the feet of the Stone Mountains. For that land was bare and barren. No tree or flower grew there, not a blade of grass nor bed of moss. They crossed that choking wasteland and climbed those shelterless mountains and, in the late spring of the next year, descended into the far north of the basin to the west of the Gray Mountains. A long journey awaited them still, filled with battle and sorrow, before they could reach the Valley of the Rangers. Yet the horror of the dragons and of the wastes was behind them. And Niall was young then and strong. He mourned and bent with the breeze. He started life anew.
But Niall did not forget those days or the names of his comrades fallen in battle or lost in the hell of the north, men they could not pause to mourn or bury. The need that drove them was too great, and the desert and mountains were as hard as the dragons’ bones. He thought of them as he looked from the upper story of the waterfront storehouse he had chosen for his hiding place last night. And he thought of them with shame. For with the years their faces had receded into a darkness Niall could not resist. Most were only names and a feeling. A few persisted as no more than fractured images: Merrel’s darting eyes, Hanon’s lopsided grin, and the freckled cheeks of Cirran, youngest of them all, not a soldier, but a shepherd found hiding in the woods, as deadly with his sling as any archer with his bow. He loved them still, vanished or not.
Yet when the harbor sprang to life in the drizzling dawn, those long dead, long young faces, came back to him. Their shades seemed to gather. He was convinced of their presence. Without turning to look he could see them in his mind, crowding around him and gazing out the window as intently and hungrily as he did. Niall did not need to ask himself why they were here. None of them had lived to see the day of his homecoming, which during their flight from Sufra they longed for more than vengeance. Now, alone of them all, he was home, a lifetime too late.
By the time the merchant convoy had sailed in on the last of the making tide an hour later, the ghosts were gone. If they had ever truly been there. The ships docked, to be met by the wharf rats who had assembled to unload their cargo. Endlessly, tirelessly throughout the day the men of the docks moved and sorted crates, bales, and barrels by the hundred. Some they put straight onto wagons, which left immediately to deliver their goods to the City; others they staged to be loaded as soon as the wagons returned empty; still others they set aside for transport tomorrow.
As he watched them working, Niall began to be curious about what the larger crates contained. Some of them were big enough to hold a man. Then he had to stifle a sudden laugh. Every tale of stowaways he knew from his childhood burst into his mind. He had found his way into Narinen. The first thing he needed was to find a pry bar, which proved none too difficult in a warehouse filled with wooden boxes. The next was to discover the routine of the watchmen, a simple task in which to pass the dreary hours. There were twelve guards, one every five minutes, and an hour went by before Niall saw the same man watchman twice. Long before the day ended, it was clear that a new group of twelve came on duty every four hours.
Niall drew back from the window, exhausted and bored, but convinced he could easily slip past the watchmen. In a pitch black corner of the warehouse he sat down with his back against the wall. His sword lay naked on the floor beside him. The three days since he parted from the others had left him chilled, wet, and appallingly tired. He reminded himself of what Jalonn had said about the guards on the City walls: patterns could be broken. So he would watch the watchmen again for an hour before he left the warehouse, but first he would try for a few hours rest. Listening to the rain falling on the roof, a sound he had always loved, he allowed sleep to overcome him.
As weary as Niall was, his was the light sleep of a man expecting to hear a footfall on the stairs, and in his restless dreams he relived the cold, soaked misery of the last three days. The first night he had hastened on through the pouring darkness, often crawling in the mud to dodge the scouts who became more numerous the closer he came to the City. Several times they were close enough for him to hear them grumbling about the weather.
All the next day he had lain in a ditch full of water barely two hundred yards from the Mountain Gate, looking vainly for a way in. It was carefully guarded. The Captain of the Gate challenged all who approached, and granted entry only to those who wore the black – and, Niall assumed, knew the watchword – or who produced papers for his inspection. That night he moved again, around to the North Gate, and spent his second day studying it. Here, too, everyone was stopped and questioned. There seemed no way in except to scale the walls, but patrols along them were frequent and strong, a half dozen men or more each time. Getting over those walls unseen would be a near run thing at best.
But as he crouched in a ditch that night and tried to rest, an idea came to him. As boys, he and his friends used to swim around the seaward end of the Long Walls and into the harbor. That way seemed the best chance he had. Though he would still need to find a way through the Sea Gate, he would at least be inside the walls, where he hoped the vigilance of the dragon’s men might be more relaxed. Ships still came to Narinen, bringing goods and supplies for the troopers and the people of the City. The Sea Gate was always a scene of traffic and confusion. Perhaps he could slip through somehow.
So three hours before dawn this morning he was hiding at the base of the Long Walls down by the water, with his back pressed flat against the fine old stonework. When he was sure no guard was at hand he waded as quickly as he could into the cold water. His heart was leaping from the shock, and he had to clench his teeth against the breathtaking pain that seized his bones. The memory of the boy who once swam nearly naked in the ocean every day from late spring into autumn was lost forever in the wintry sea.
The incoming tide was strong and he had to fight hard against it, burdened as he was with his boots and clothing, weapons and pack. By the time he reached the end of the wall fifty yards from the shore, he was struggling and unsure of himself. Once he slipped under the water and in despair thought it would be so much easier to surrender and let the sea claim him. But he did not give in. His companions and his family were waiting for him.
At length he crawled from the sea on limbs that hurt yet could not feel the sand beneath them. Up beyond the high tide line were a number of fishermen’s longboats turned hull up against the rain. For a few minutes he rested among them until sensation returned to his legs and he felt able to walk again. From there he hurried, still unsteady, along the crescent shore towards the inner harbor, passing first the fishermen’s huts, then the ropewalks and other yards from which ships were fitted out, before coming to the wharves and storehouses he was seeking, right near the road which led up to the Sea Gate. He forced open a rear window and climbed into a warehouse, there to rest a little and see what dawn and high tide might bring.
Niall awoke with a start, expecting to find himself fighting the sea, or shivering in his sodden clothes. But that was yesterday, he realized after a moment, and he had been dreaming. He shook off the dreams and returned to his vigil by the window. With the clouds and rain it was difficult to know how many hours had passed, but the tide was already well in. So it had to be towards morning. He had slept through most of the night.
Outside a watchman paced by, lantern and spear in hand. He had the rolling gait of a man who had spent years on the deck of a ship, and was happily crooning to himself an old song of the sea which made Niall smile. His grandfather used to hum that tune while he worked in his garden. The next watchman by contrast seemed unhappy and a little drunk. He was muttering under his breath, and could not quite walk a straight line. Niall smiled more broadly, and let one watchman after another pass his window. He was waiting for the sailor and the drunk to return. At last the sailor came, still singing, and as soon as that man’s soft voice faded into the distance, he slipped from the warehouse and across the street onto the closest wharf.
Quickly he pried open a large crate, and set to work drawing the nails. Luckily there were only a few. Even so, the screeching of the nails as he wrenched them out of the wood seemed the loudest noise ever heard, but the sailor did not come back to investigate, and two minutes later the drunk staggered resolutely past. The next two watchmen, more silent and sober, came and went. Niall could not believe that the horrid shriek each nail made had gone unnoticed. Finally, with a shrug he climbed into the crate and pulled the lid back down as tightly as he could. The rain pounded on the lid and dripped through the seams onto his face.
“Well,” he sighed, “either this box will get me in, or they’ll bury me in it. If they bury me at all, that is.”
All there was to do was wait, for the dawn, for the opening of the dockyards, and for his blind journey to another warehouse inside the City. Several times he fought off sleep. He was still weary. The dreams his mind had raced through while he slept were anything but restful; and the two nights before this one had allowed him to snatch only a few minutes of sleep at a time, waking at every sound or change in the wind, no matter how slight. Niall shifted his weight to make himself less comfortable. It was just his luck that his crate was packed with apples, which he loved to eat, but which made for a lumpy bed.
In time daylight began to peek through the seams in the crate and the docks came to life around him. Men muttered to themselves, or engaged in low conversations about their wives and the daily concerns of home. Orders were given calmly or sharply as needed, and the wharf rats began loading the crates next to Niall onto wagons for transport. It seemed a long time before they reached his, but presently they did and very shortly thereafter the wagon rumbled down the wharf to the road.
From the starts and stops with which they proceeded, and from the driver’s cursing and shouting, Niall understood that his wagon was but one of many climbing up from the waterfront. Though it was only a mile to the Sea Gate, the trip took hours. How many Niall could not tell. A long halt at the Sea Gate itself worried him, not least because he was powerless to act and surrounded by disembodied voices which spoke in the welcome accents of his youth yet belonged to men he had to fear. When the wagon at last lurched forward again, it was only a minute or two before it turned right, probably into the Sea Merchants Street, the first intersection beyond the gateway bailey. That made sense. For the streets to the north of the Sea Gate had once been home to the shops and warehouses of the City’s most prominent merchants.
Soon the wagon turned again, the light dimmed and the rain ceased pounding on the lid. The wagon halted.  All around him Niall could hear men talking, at least a half dozen of them, the stockmen of the warehouse which the wagon had entered. They laughed and joked with each other as they complained about how heavy the crates were. Then one got away from them and splintered on the ground, provoking a tirade and the threat of lost wages from the overseer. Several of the workmen answered back with rude suggestions. All work stopped. A surly pause followed, in which Niall could feel the tension of something about to happen. Quick footsteps approached across the wooden floor, and a friendlier voice spoke.
“Let’s clean it up, lads. No harm done. Nothing seems broken.”
The men resumed their work, and when they had sorted the broken crate from its contents, began unloading the wagon again.
How different was this from the days before the Fall? Niall was unsure. Perhaps not at all. Although he knew the shops that once lined this street, he had never been inside one of these warehouses before. His family had been wealthy for centuries, and like Arden he had led a privileged life in his youth. The invisible men surrounding him worked for a day’s wages and scrambled to put bread on the table. Niall had very little idea what that was like. No one in his family did. Had life changed for them as it had for him when the dragons came? He did not know.
Suddenly the workmen slid his crate backwards and off the wagon, startling Niall out his musings. They began lowering the crate.
“Damn, that was heavy,” a voice complained after they put him down. “What’s in here?”
“Apples, it says,” a second answered.
“Apples? You’d think it was full of gold.”
“Maybe that’s dragons eat,” the second said.
“Golden apples.”
“Quiet there,” a third voice broke in angrily, the overseer’s. “Mind your job if you want to keep it.”
Niall now felt himself moving again. There was the rumble of wheels on a wooden floor. They had set him and his crate on some sort of dolly. He stopped unexpectedly, was lifted up again, then set back down. The laborers’ voices faded as they walked off to continue with the next crate.
For a few hours more work went on all around him. More wagons came in. But no one touched his crate again, or set another on top of it. He smiled as he imagined himself trying to explain to Master Jalonn that he had missed his hour and left them standing by the postern because he had been trapped inside a box full of fruit. Agarwen would scarcely be able to contain her mirth. She would never let him forget it. Evénn no doubt would smile. Arden would frown and look away. From Jalonn he could expect a raised eyebrow, a smirk, and a withering reply about Rangers not being as resourceful as they once were.
At long last the day ended. The workmen departed, but someone remained behind for another hour or so, walking around and talking to himself as he checked what they had received against the shipping manifest. It did not sound like the overseer’s voice, but the calmer voice which had intervened in the quarrel. Niall surmised he was the owner. In time he, too, left for the evening. The lock in the door clicked shut.
Once Niall was certain the man was not coming back, he pushed the lid off the box. He was disappointed to find the warehouse scarcely less dark than the inside of the crate. A very little light seeped through the high, small windows facing the street, but in the rear wall was a brick hearth which contained the dying embers of a fire behind a heavy iron screen. At any other time its glow would have been too faint to notice. Stiff and tired from lying still so long, he went and sat down beside it to glean every last bit of its warmth. Despite the danger, he was tempted to throw another piece of wood onto the grate and stir up the coals. He remained there until the ashes were quite cold, imagining how nice it would be to sit beside a fire right now.
With a sigh he rose, and began groping his way across the room. Since the warehouse was large, it took some time to find the stairs up to the loft. They climbed steeply towards the front of the building. Each step creaked beneath his feet, as did the floor of the loft. When Niall reached his goal, two small doors directly above the main entrance through which goods not immediately needed could be hoisted up from the street below, he pushed one of them open a couple of inches and peered out. He was indeed in the Street of the Sea Merchants in the northeast quadrant of the City. That pleased him almost as much as the lessening of the rain, which he was quite tired of, whether on the roof or on his head. He had been wet for so long he thought he would soon begin to mildew.
Stepping back from the loft door, he sat down against the wall and cleaned the beginnings of rust from his weapons. He was about to eat some damp bread from his pack, but decided instead to fetch some of the apples he had spent the day with. A dozen apples later he settled in for a few hours’ sleep. He had made it into the City with a day to spare, but he did not yet know where he would go from here. A mostly dreamless sleep followed. But just before he awoke, he dreamed of the house where he had grown up, in the southeast quadrant of the City close to the square. The house was full of sunshine, and though he could see no one, he could hear the laughter of his younger sisters drifting down the stairs. He woke after midnight, feeling more rested than he had since they had been with Hansarad.
“Fine,” he said to the shadows of the warehouse, “I’ll go home.”
The shadows did not answer, nor bid him farewell as he slipped out of the loft doors and down the rope that hung from the hoist mounted outside. The streets were deserted except for a few patrols he avoided with ease. They were complacent and slack in the heart of the City. They made no effort to conceal themselves or move silently, as though they did not they did not care if anyone heard them coming. How unlike the scouts, hunters, and troopers Niall was used to. No doubt these men had it good here among the ashes. Their harsh laughter and swagger also made it clear that they were more bullies than soldiers, accustomed to preying on frightened people unable to escape or resist them. Having to hide and let them pass galled Niall, who had to admit that the discipline of the dragon’s men elsewhere merited some respect. But not here, not these men.
Though Niall always listened closely to the spare news that escaped from Narinen, no report had prepared his eyes or heart for the corruption that lay behind the beautiful façade of the white walls. The dragon fires within had burned for days after the Fall, and the sack of the City had been brutal. In a generation little had been done to repair or rebuild. No street he came to was entirely free of ruin. In most the rubble of fallen walls and buildings had been thrust aside to clear a path for wagons, but some streets were choked entirely shut. With the years many of the heaps had settled and decayed. Grass and bushes and a few saplings grew untended upon them. It was as if some mighty hand had scooped up small hills from the wild and set them randomly down in the once orderly landscape of the City. All was familiar, yet timeless and strange, as in a nightmare. He half expected to stumble over the dead.
Two hours before dawn the rain finally stopped. The clouds sailed out east to reveal the stars. And Niall came back to the street where he was born. It was near the center of the City where the fires had been worst, and only now did it occur to him that his house might not have survived. But as he looked carefully around the last corner, he saw with some relief that the home of his family for generations was still there. The upper floor was visible over the wall which shielded the courtyard from the street. Most of the roof tiles even seemed to be in place. They had probably saved it from the flames. But he was cut off from the gate. Old Sanday’s house across the way had toppled forward into the street, filling it from one side to the other. As a boy he had been impressed by the massive house and the forty foot columns which held up its overhanging roof. It made an equally impressive pile of ruins now.

Niall hung back, peering around the corner with a trepidation he had never expected. This house would have been his now, had things been different. He would have lived here with his wife – with Arden’s Sorrow – and watched their children grow. There might even be grandchildren to spoil by this time. Had things been different. But that future was as empty as the street he was looking down, and as barren as the house he was coming home to. The wife he had in this future was the choice of his heart, not of his parents; and the children he had with Lissana were far away over mountain and plain, safe for now in the Valley, like, Dorlas and Rinn, his younger children; or like his eldest son, Erinor, who was abroad with other Rangers, in peril but far from defenseless. His love for them drove off the ghosts of that other future.
Behind him he heard a noise. Someone was coming. Niall darted down the abandoned street. Scrambling up the rubble of Sanday’s house, he jumped to the top of the outer wall of his own house. Quickly he surveyed the courtyard, then dropped down into it. The footsteps dwindled and disappeared, moving west. Their steady pace suggested that the stranger had either not seen him or did not care to know what he was doing. After a moment’s pause, Niall crossed the courtyard and pushed open the door. He had come home.
Within, the darkness was more profound. Blacker patches marked the doorways into the rooms off the hallway. At its end was the main stairway to the upper floor and the family’s private quarters. To his right lay the main parlor, where they received guests, and behind it their dining room. To his left his father’s library ran all the way to the back of the house, its walls lined from the floor to the ceiling fourteen feet above with bookcases of ebony which held a treasured collection that many a visiting loremaster had envied.
As he gazed down the long hallway and his eyes adjusted to the starless dark inside, the sound of his own youthful voice crying out that he was home echoed across the years to him. In those days that cry had always brought his sisters, Rinn and Seela, running to greet him. Their laughter filled the house with joy, and laughing he had embraced them both. In the last years before the Fall Niall had often been away, sometimes for weeks or months, and each time he came home the changes that begin with childhood’s end amazed him. But their laughter never changed. It always held the same clear ring of delight that Niall now heard in the voices of his own children at their cottage door.
But the hall was silent. Niall stood just inside the door, frozen in memory and time, until the eastern sky behind him lightened to a gray-blue twilight, which showed him a house sunk deep in the dust of years and strewn with shattered furniture. He recognized the remains of the hall table and of his father’s high-backed library chair. It was out of place here, but many a night Niall had come home late to find his father in that chair. Open before him in a pool of light on his desk were volumes of history and documents of state, or, if it was very late, the songs of the ancient lyric poets who gave him respite. His father would glance up and nod if he was busy, or smile and close his book if he had time to talk.
Niall walked into the parlor, discovering more broken furniture scattered about the floor. One chair survived intact, his mother’s, alone near the windows, so that she could look out upon the garden while at her needlework or reading, and cherish the morning sunlight that helped her weak eyes do them both. A piece of embroidery, unfinished still, lay beneath it. The perpetual stack of books and the side table upon which they used to sit were both gone. Niall looked upon the room and walked on. His every step along the way raised the dust. Motes danced and sparkled in the brightening shafts of morning.
He moved into the dining room – there was no sign of the silver of course – and through it into the kitchen beyond, then back around to the front of the house through the library. The bookcases remained, nearly empty, their contents likely stolen for kindling years ago. The last time Niall stood here, thousands of volumes, bound in leather with pages of a thick, creamy white, had waited on these shelves to welcome him to the ancient courts of kings and the hearts of young lovers. Three survived. Kneeling down, he pulled them from the bottom shelf one by one and examined them. Two were history, and the third a pretty little book of poems he remembered well. In his hands they felt almost holy. He wiped their covers clean and read a few pages of each before putting them back. He asked himself how they had escaped the fires the others had gone to feed. He wondered briefly if there was still someone in the City who chose not to forget, someone who stole away here from time to time and read these books, but the only tracks in the dust were his own.
In time, with a heart full of regret, Niall reached the foot of the great stairs and looked up. It was lit by a window high above the landing. As he began to climb he could hear water dripping somewhere upstairs, rain that had found its way through the tiles on the roof. At the top of the stairs he came to his parents’ room first of all. Broad and spacious, it spanned nearly the whole front of the house. Two smaller rooms, fine places of peace and privacy, one for each of his parents, adjoined it on either end. Their bed had been hacked into many pieces, by axes it seemed, the mattress slashed, the curtains that once surrounded it torn down.
Turning back to the rear of the house, he looked the other way as he passed his sisters’ room and entered his own. It sat above the kitchen, a position he had prized as a hungry young man in the middle of the night. Nothing remained except for the portrait of his grandfather’s grandfather, the sea captain whom he had idolized as a boy and whom the sea had swallowed up over a century earlier. The painting itself was strangely untouched, but the frame which he and his uncle had made and covered in gold leaf had been taken.
Outside his sisters’ room Niall paused for a long while. The door was shut, the only one in all the house, and this frightened him. To contemplate the Fall of the City from his new life far away, to hear the tale told by Arden and the one or two others he knew who had been here, was not the same as seeing the devastated streets and walking the rooms of his own home. For in thought and hearing there was pain, but pain at a remove; losses were suffered unwitnessed. As he stood here now, poised at this door, his heart crashed in his chest and the dust of loss rose up to choke him. Niall tasted the bitterness of Arden’s heart. He needed no urging to hate the dragons, but he hated them all the more now.
Niall opened the door and walked in. The room was untouched. Windows in the western and southern walls allowed ample light in. Rinn and Seela’s beds faced each other across the room just as he remembered, their plump pillows neatly placed and their covers smooth and straight. Books were piled on the two small desks where the girls had done their lessons. A hair brush and hand mirror lay on Seela's dressing table by the unbroken west window. The doors of their armoires stood open, revealing their clothing. The room looked just lived in. The dust here did not even seem so deep. No more, perhaps, than might accumulate when the girls went away for the summer to visit their mother’s parents at their home in the south.
Niall exhaled and sat down on the nearer bed. The mattress was deep, soft, and tempting. He had feared to open the door. He had not wanted to see his sisters’ room ravaged and broken, soulless and bare. Instead he found it as he remembered it, just empty and quiet. It calmed him to sit there a while, his hands flat upon his knees, and visit in silent memory. But in time the bed proved almost too inviting, and Niall had to stand up.
Crossing the room he stood between the further bed and the western window to look out upon his City on a sunny winter’s morning. When he turned away from the window some minutes later, he spied something white on the floor partly concealed beneath the bed. It was a ball. With a smile he bent down to pick it up, thinking he might take it as a keepsake for his own children. But it was not a ball, as he grasped the instant before he touched it. It was a skull, of someone young, barely more than a child. Niall hesitated before picking it up, but he took it and held it to his chest a long time before he dared look at it.
“Oh, which one were you?” he cried faintly as he looked, and sank to his knees, forgetful of all the world.


No comments:

Post a Comment