03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 15.1

Fifteen

For three nights Niall’s companions had ridden south and east from their camp near the mountains towards the curving line of the small hills and bluffs which divided the green fields of the coastlands from the sandy shore. At the first night’s end an old barn built into a hillside offered them rest and shelter from the rain. Evénn watched the whole day while the others slept in turn, but the hills and fields around them were quiet, just as they were the next day, which they spent in the burnt out shell of a country house. The third dawn found them camped in a small wood just north of the mouth of a broad and shallow river. When asked, Arden told them that this was the same stream they knew from the little valley at the feet of the Green Hills, the same one which had carried them beneath the bridge three nights before.
It was from this wood that Agarwen first looked upon the sea. When they had seen to the horses and eaten a bit, she and Jalonn were to rest, while Arden and Evénn stood guard. But Agarwen was too full of anticipation to sleep. She was about to see at last the sight she had yearned for since she was a little girl. The salt edge of the air, which grew keener as they came down to the sea, and the rush and thunder of the waves upon on the nearby sands, drew her on. From the eaves of the wood she stared in wonder at the meaning of glory – the sea purple with dawn and the morning star brilliant in a clear, blue band of fading night.
When Agarwen glimpsed the sea days ago in a blaze of gold along the world’s edge, she believed its beauty was all her heart could desire. Now that the sea stretched out before her, ever shifting, never changing, making sport of light and color, of shadow and of shape, it stirred her beyond all imagining. The immense, timeless realm suggested by the red-gold limb of the sun emerging from the horizon, as if the sea were vast enough to drown the sun itself, dwarfed the forests and mountains of her experience. With the rising of the sun Agarwen awoke to a longing she had never known, to leave behind the mountains and woods of her home and know the sea. But the time for that was not yet. She remained at the woods’ edge, half lit by morning.
The sight of her brought a smile to the face of Arden, who watched unseen from nearby. Her bliss made her radiant, even in a travel stained cloak and muddy boots. He knew how long Agarwen had waited for this day. Patience was a thing he understood. The joy and wonder so plain on her face touched him, but he could not share them. He loved the sea as a man loves what is lost. The sad pleasure of seeing it again arrested him. Arden had wished never to come here again, to the sea, the City and the graves. Only the dragon could have brought him here. Only the dragon could have made him suggest the house of Sorrow. Arden turned his face from Agarwen and the sea. He threw his hood up and pulled his cloak close about him.
As they moved northwards that night they crossed again beneath the clouds and into the rain. After midnight they began passing the remains of homes Arden knew well. Every half mile or so they came to a place he could put a name to, a house he had played in as a child, or visited as a young man. Of some so little remained that ruins were much too grand a name for them: a low mound covered in grass was more like proud flesh over an old scar. That was what Arden found when they moved through what had been the courtyard of his own home, a grassy rise where the house had stood, a bit of wall towards the sea, the curving stone rim of their well.
Though all the buildings around the courtyard had been burning when he and Jalonn hurried past long ago without stopping – Jalonn had not let him pause, but dragged him onward – it surprised him that no more of it was left. Tonight, too, they hurried, but now they sought the evil they had once fled. Now Arden led them on. For these were the fields of his youth and he knew them even on the darkest night. Presently they crossed the land where Hedále had lived with his parents and brother. They skirted the burned wood of snags and stumps which surrounded the grounds, and headed towards the sea.
In the hour before dawn they came through the cold rain and mist to the hillside they were seeking. It was a mound about twenty feet high and over a hundred feet long, like the back of a great green whale cresting the surface for a breath before diving again. It sat at the top of a slope that ran gently down to the shore. A dense screen of pines and holly bushes covered the mound and the upper reaches of the slope, between which ran a narrow lane. Even in the gloom it was clear that this place had escaped the ravages of the dragon, but no hands had tended the path or pruned back the bushes as they once did. Arden plunged in.
When they came near the northern end of the mound, Arden threw his leg over Impetuous’ back and jumped down from the saddle. Over his shoulder he could see Moonglow’s face and beyond it the dark outline of Evénn’s head and shoulders. Turning to the hillside, he forced his way through the overgrown holly bushes, which would have rendered the cellar door invisible even in full sunlight. The barbed leaves snatched at his clothing and scratched his face. He felt his way along, searching for the stone archway which led in to the door. A dozen feet to his right Arden found it and broke it open. Before him was a black hole which yawned into a greater void behind it.
“This is it,” he said, the first words he had uttered in a day, and stepped inside. His hands located the lanterns hanging on either side of the door, just where he remembered them. Then using some of the tinder he kept in his pack, he kindled a tiny blaze on the dirt floor. He made sure the lanterns still contained oil and lit them. One he hung back by the door, the other he took with him as he moved farther into the cellar.
When Evénn saw the faint light appear inside, he passed a loop of line around the bush in front of the door to pull it out of the way. After Agarwen and Jalonn led the horses inside, he followed, shutting the door behind him. A warm glow at odds with the chill sea-damp of the air lit the cellar. Row upon row of shelves laden with boxes and jars stretched away into the gloom. Evénn saw Arden, already deep into the cellar, holding up his lamp and studying everything around him with care and deliberation. The gap between the two pools of light was growing wider, the shadows in between them more profound.
Evénn watched Arden go. Every step was taking him into the past in ways that not even recounting his story could. That was memory. However tenaciously he clasped it to his heart, it was a still a story he told himself. This was real, and here memory burned like dragon fire. Evénn suddenly became aware of Agarwen at his side, and realized that the power of the vision in which Arden walked was drawing him in, too. Evénn knew such visions all too well. He shook them off and looked at Agarwen. On her face was a concern she could not hide. He called out to Arden, who stopped at the sound of his voice. He called again, and Arden turned back reluctantly.
In time they found more lanterns and oil as they searched for provisions that might yet be unspoiled. Arden discovered some jars of fruit, the labor of Lady Gwinlan, in the western part of the cellar. There the smell of the fire in which the house had perished was still strong. The wooden stairway, which had led up to the kitchen, had collapsed, its upper end charred black and twisted from the heat of the fire. What had been the door lay flat across the floor joists above their heads. Doubtless another mound of ashes and dirt lay piled on top of them. Roots hung down between the joists. There was only one way into and out of the cellar. It was their fortress, but like every fortress, it was also a trap.
After they had eaten some of the fruit – peaches, pears, and apples mostly – to save the precious lamp oil they doused every lantern but one and rested. Evénn cracked open the outer door, to let in a little of the morning and so they could hear any noise outside.
“The rain has stopped,” he said as he sat down.
He leaned his back against the wall just inside the door. His sword was drawn and its hilt rested on his shoulder. A thin ray of light from the new sun cast itself across the darkness. They could hear nothing but the wind in the holly bushes and the surf not far beyond them. Arden sat down to Evénn’s right, about ten feet away. His blade, too, was bare and cradled against his arm and shoulder. His hand rested on the guard and he thumbed the edge thoughtfully, while staring absently into space.
In the dim light admitted by the door, Jalonn could see him sitting there. After an hour Arden’s eyes closed and he bowed his head. In a few minutes the expression of pain and struggle that Arden had worn these last three days, ever since they had departed their camp to come here, left his face. The peace that Jalonn saw there now was seldom visible except when Arden slept, and not always even then. Jalonn, too, had heard Arden murmur an unforgotten name in his sleep, but what he saw now, he knew, was the peace of forgetfulness, which came only when the mind fully shed the burden of waking. He had seen it in many faces in his time. For their times were hard and many besides Arden had suffered. Some fled their pain in other ways, in drink, in the juice of the poppy, and down many other dark paths that had no turning. Arden did not walk those paths. Instead of oblivion, he grappled with his pain and his memories and held them tight, refusing to forget. And refusing to heal.
“Does he forget them now,” Jalonn wondered, “and dream of the life he wanted?”
But if Arden found any comfort there, Jalonn also knew that before long he would wake as he had seen him do often over the years he had known him. Forgetfulness would fade and his face would put back on its sadness. Arden’s face had changed some with the years. Gone from his eyes was the blazing rage of their first months together when Arden’s pain was always on the verge of bursting forth. Though he had been but a boy, it had made him a warrior to be feared, capable of defeating opponents of greater skill and experience; but the recklessness accompanying it also made him vulnerable. Arden’s body bore the scars, and Jalonn had saved his life more than once.
Time and the discipline of the Rangers had largely subdued that rage and under discipline it became a source of ever greater strength. But just as a father and mother can still hear, decades later, the voice of their little child in the grown son or daughter, so Jalonn could even now descry the shattered boy he had found beside those graves a lifetime ago; and as they drew nearer to the house of Sorrow he had seen that boy more clearly yet in the man who grew more silent by the hour. Arden was fighting to master what he could not master as a boy.
Knowing Arden as he did, Jalonn had foreseen this. For, though in the months since Evénn had come Arden had become less solitary, and at times even affable, Jalonn knew that Arden would withdraw from them once again. How could he not when he was preparing to step once again onto the stage where the scenes of his life’s destruction had begun to be played out even before the Fall? After many years of loneliness and wandering, Arden was returning home to exact his vengeance, but the heart which he had lost, though never forsaken, could not be restored. The dead could not return.
Jalonn roused himself from these reflections to find Evénn looking at him. In the elf’s eyes he thought he perceived an understanding of all that had been passing through his mind. It irked him that sometimes Evénn seemed to know what they were thinking, as did the suspicion that he knew more than he had told them. After a moment Evénn withdrew his gaze, sighed and reached down to stroke the wolf who lay beside him, his nose wedged in the narrow opening they had left, sniffing the air outside.
Looking around, Jalonn saw Argos curled in a ball against Arden’s side. Both slept. The horses were unsaddled and tethered in a line down the cellar’s broad central aisle. From time to time they shifted their feet. Agarwen, Jalonn saw, was looking at Arden, her face a mask of concern and affection. As ever it grieved Jalonn to see her like this. For he knew how it shamed Arden to be unable to requite her love; yet it was part of her nature never to relinquish any hope entirely. He caught the glimmer of that pain in Arden’s eyes whenever he stole an unobserved glance at her.
“Agarwen,” he whispered, “you must sleep. Your watch begins in two hours.”
She met his eyes, then lay down reluctantly and rolled away from him, pulling her blanket up over her shoulder.
Evénn looked at him again and nodded. Jalonn closed his own eyes and slept, his back as always to the wall, his face to the door. Watch succeeded watch. In turn Agarwen, then Arden, then Jalonn joined the tireless elf, who yielded his post but did not sleep.
In the dusk Arden and Agarwen slipped out to take up positions atop either end of the hill, to keep watch for a few hours before it was time to go. On her right, down the slope past the stunted pines and the beach grass, small waves were tumbling onto the shore, their foam still bright even now. On her left was a broad open area with a heap of earth and ruins at its center: the gardens and the house. During the day Agarwen had kept trying to imagine them. She summoned up every detail of Arden’s story she could recall, but they were much larger than his tale suggested. Agarwen found this dispiriting. The memories and emotions that haunted Arden elsewhere proved almost tangible here, even for her.
Directly ahead, off beyond the woods and fields to the north, was the City, their destination. Like every Ranger, Agarwen knew much of Narinen, though she had never been there. Only a few score still lived who had. During her training she had studied it – or her as Arden and Niall usually put it – to learn its history and laws, its ways and its streets. To the Rangers, the keepers of memory, the City stood for all that was best and all that would be again. And on that morning when they came down the hills from Baran’s camp and saw it shining in the sun, Narinen had seemed all of that; tonight between the moonless dark and the gloom of her thoughts she saw it as the present ghost of all that was lost.
Yet Niall was somewhere within those walls. She wondered where he was, and whether he was safe. Only one thing, she knew, could keep him from the door at the appointed hour, but she wished he were here with her now. He would have made some irreverent jest to make her laugh. After three days of dour silence from Arden and spare words at best from Master Jalonn and Evénn, a laugh was just what she needed. Instead she spent the mirthless hours of her watch thinking of the fallen world into which she had been born, and of the dead girl in the garden whose fate somehow touched them all.
Agarwen was asking herself what it would have been like to grow up in a world without such cares when she heard the cellar door creak. The soft hoot of an owl summoned her and Arden from their posts. She came upon Evénn near the door, the wolf before him and looking at her. His tail wagged slowly a time or two. Jalonn was just emerging from the holly bushes. Beyond them she could just make out Arden’s form, tall and broad shouldered, his face invisible beneath his hood. Argos paced around him, his own impatience to be gone mirroring his master’s. At a signal from Jalonn Arden led them swiftly around the northern end of the hill and up into the garden.
“Careful there,” came his voice in a hush.
His hand darted out to his left, a gesture almost dismissive, but it lingered too long, pointing at the three graves. Over the years the mounds heaped over them had sunk so low that they were now scarcely distinguishable from the earth around them. Agarwen was surprised that she had not recognized them for what they were during her hours on watch.
“Here is where his heart dwells,” she thought with a pang.
Behind her at the rear of the line Jalonn paused, put one hand to his breast, and bowed his head a moment before hastening after his companions. Then they were out of the garden and passing through the trees beyond it. Quickly they crossed the fields between the woods and the City, slanting always towards the postern door. The line along which Arden led them was as true as the line he had followed the morning after the Fall. Once they saw a patrol of two dozen troopers heading south along the road from the gate, but their leisurely progress made clear that their duties tonight were routine. Wherever Niall was, he had raised no alarms inside Narinen.
A quarter of a mile from the postern the companions stopped for more than an hour while Evénn counted and timed the guards walking atop the walls. Every twenty minutes four soldiers strode by. Once Evénn was satisfied, Arden led them forward again. They crept closer a hundred yards at a time, flitting from shadow to shadow, ditch to ditch, and tree to tree, until they lay flat in the tall grass just beyond the road that ringed the City. Another hour went by. No challenges rang out from above. No alarms were raised. Then Evénn raised his hand to signal that they were between patrols. Arden stole across the road with the others at his heels.
As Evénn had suggested days ago, the roses at the base of the walls still lived, though they grew untended and wild. Long, riotous branches were everywhere, armed with thorns that bit and clung. When the companions reached the door, they crouched as close beneath the bushes as they could. And they waited. Agarwen looked back out at the stars high in the southern sky. The Dragonslayer was at his zenith, and Agarwen smiled. It was midnight.
But the hour came and went with no sign of Niall. No one unbolted the door. No sounds could be heard from the corridor within. Nearly an hour later, Evénn suddenly raised his head.
“There is battle within,” he murmured.
They all heard steel ringing dimly on steel. Almost two dozen blows they counted, and tensed at each one, fearing the raised voice that would summon the guards, expecting a horn call and the rush of booted feet along the wall. The last four blows were very heavy, coming quickly one upon another. Then all fell silent. Minutes or hours later they heard the bolts rasping in the door. Arden leaped to his feet and waited beside it, his sword poised for a thrust.



In sunset's red hour Niall looked out upon the City again. In the raking light, every wall, every building, every surface he could see was tinged with the dying light. That suited him well. For since that morning he had burned to rush from the house to kill as many of the enemy as he could before he himself fell. Against these bloody thoughts he forced himself to set his love for his family and his duty to the others. Over and over he told himself that if he failed in his duty he would fail also in his love. It was barely enough. All day he sat in that room, sharpening his sword and dagger. When he was done, he thumbed their edges and whetted them again, over and over until they owned a keenness as fierce as the rage that possessed him. With each pass of his whetstone, Niall counted a life he would take.
He was satisfied. His blades could be no sharper. He wiped the blood from his thumbs and put his gloves back on. Hours more remained before midnight. Strangely, the City’s bloody aspect soothed him, all the more so as the deepening twilight robbed it of its color. In the living red and the gray and black to which it yielded, he found a mirror of his soul. In that hour he was calm, but it was, Niall knew, the dead tranquility of one whose illusions had all been crushed, one who knew only despair and the desire to strike with no regard for his own life. Fey is what the old Rangers of the Valley would call him, as some had long called Arden. He knew that, too, and he did not care. It amused him that now, as Arden seemed to be creeping back to the light and life of men at last, he should suffer this turn himself. He smiled, but it was the smile of one who did not care.
As he stood gazing out the northern window of that room towards the shattered halls and buildings which surrounded the main square, in the last glimmer of light there came a flash of red. And the dragon crawled from a large hole in the roof of the Hall of Kings. He paused on its peak. Turning his head slowly on his elegant neck, the dragon surveyed his realm below. Then he clambered swiftly up the ruined western tower and perched there, stretching his vast span of wings. A long while he stayed there and looked down on Narinen. At length he took flight more easily than any bird, and came sweeping low over the square, towards Niall, who cursed not having Arden beside him with Mahar’s bow in his strong hand. Now they could do it. They could wait until last moment – till the dragon was about to pass out of sight overhead, till he was so close that not even he could react in time – and let the arrow fly.
But Arden and the bow were not there. They were at the house of Sorrow. The beast circled back north again, rising over the broken roof and the unequal towers of the Hall. Several sharp beats of his wings sped him out and away from the City. He was gone into the gloom of the north.
“Damn him,” Niall growled. “Damn him.”
The object of all his hatred and of all their efforts had just slipped away. Niall watched and watched, while the few, bright stars of evening gave way to the tens of thousands which lit the night. He strained his eyes to catch the shadow of the dragon returning against the starlight. But there was no shadow to see, neither above nor on the roof and towers of the Hall of Kings.
At last Niall’s time ran out. Midnight was an hour away. The others would be somewhere in the fields outside the postern door, waiting for him. It was time to go, but halfway to the door a sudden thought stopped him. As much as he regretted coming here, this house was still his home. He did not wish to leave it empty-handed. From his sisters’ room he took the hairbrush and hand mirror. In the parlor downstairs he plucked the scrap of needlework from beneath the chair, and in the library the book of poems from the shelf. He stowed them as carefully as he could in his pack. Then he loosened his sword and dagger in their sheaths and, bow in hand, turned his back on the house of his youth.
From there to the postern was little more than a mile, but for Niall the going was painfully slow. At this hour not many people were left on the streets. Most were hurrying home, but some tarried to have a drink and a few minutes of talk in makeshift taverns. Dim lights burned in upper windows. But except for the watchmen on patrol, everyone he saw in the torchlight outside the taverns appeared poor, their clothing worn and frayed, their faces often dirty. Niall viewed them all from shadowy doorways and around the corners of the alleys by which he wove his way from street to street. He never stayed on any one street for long.
Once he turned into a narrow street which he had expected to find empty since in his youth it was home to the workshops of small craftsmen where no one had any business at this hour. Instead a small crowd of about twenty men and women were gathered around an open fire outside a tawdry shop. They talked and laughed loudly, like people deep in their wine. Niall flattened himself against a building and watched them closely. They were too taken up with their pleasures to have seen him. He looked the other way up the street. There was no side street or alley he could cut through. Niall was tempted to go back, but there was something about their laughter that prompted him not to retrace his steps and seek another way around. He gathered himself and strode straight down the opposite side of the street. But their laughter died as they spied him, and in silence they pretended not to watch him pass. It was only when he reached the next street over that Niall remembered he was cloaked and hooded in the black of the dragon.
A few more twists and turns and Niall was there. He did not know it, but he stood in the same spot, his back against the same wall, as Arden had done many years before. Here at the edge of the City all was darkness and starlight, and as he waited in the stillness Niall thought he heard the slightest noise from around the corner. Slowly he edged to the very corner of the building, drawing an arrow from his quiver and stringing it in his bow. His head inched forward until he could see. The door was held against him.
Six cloaked figures stood before the door, motionless as stone carvings on a frieze. Their bearing and mute discipline made clear that these men were soldiers, unlike the bullying watchmen he had seen elsewhere in Narinen. He drew his head back. The door was some thirty yards away. For some time he waited to see if by chance they might leave or be summoned away, but the minutes slipped by until an hour had passed. While he stood there counting his breaths and trying to quell all the feelings this day had given rise to within him, he considered the departure of the dragon and the presence of these men here tonight, at a door previously unguarded. But this was no time, he told himself, to sort that out. It was now well after midnight and every minute’s delay left his friends outside the walls and vulnerable to unfriendly eyes. It was time to act.
Before he had fully rounded the corner, his first arrow had felled the nearest guard; seconds later he loosed the next into the guard beside the first. His third pierced the throat of another as he started to run at Niall, drawing his sword as he came. The other three were closing on Niall now. Another arrow would leave him no time to draw his sword. Niall threw his bow at the feet of the foremost, who leaped high to avoid it. As his feet touched the pavement again, Niall was upon him, sword in hand. He stooped low and cut his legs from under him.
Then he was up, dagger in his left hand and sword in his right. On another night Niall might have let the two come to him, and circled to one side, using the nearer opponent as a shield against the further. But not this night. He attacked them with a relentless passion that would have baffled the friends waiting for him even now outside the door.
Nor did his enemies expect his headlong charge. Niall fought them two handed, striking at his sword-hand foe, but only parrying and feinting with his dagger. As Niall wished, the swordsman to his left sensed in this an advantage he could press. And when Niall’s sword-hand opponent slashed at Niall, the second lunged forward with a killing thrust. But Niall was not there. Instead of parrying the blow of the first, he had leapt backwards out of range, which exposed his lunging second opponent to a forehand slash to his throat. Then in three vicious blows Niall beat down the guard of the last man and with a fourth killed him.
He checked each of the fallen, his dagger ready in his hand: all were dead. Niall sheathed his weapons and retrieved his bow. Finding the inner door of the postern unlocked, he opened it. Inside he groped his way along for about ten feet before he met any obstruction. It seemed to be a large wooden box as wide as the corridor and nearly as tall as he was. Returning to the street, he dragged the bodies into the corridor. For now the night would conceal the blood in the street. Niall closed the door behind him.
In the utter blackness of the tunnel, Niall felt his way back to the box and heaved himself to its top, but he had not crawled more than a few feet before his hand reached out and touched nothing. He jumped back down and continued along the right hand wall, expecting some new obstruction. There was nothing to block his way. His hands touched the oaken outer door. Niall found the bolts and drew them one by one, then pushed the door open a few inches.
“Niall,” he heard Arden say in a voice soft but urgent, “we heard swords. Are – ”
“The door was guarded,” he answered sharply. “And the dragon is gone. We have failed.”
Back as they had come they fled. Arden would not leave until Evénn and Jalonn dragged him from the open doorway. If their approach to Narinen had seemed to them slow, with brief intervals of haste woven together with watchful delays, their return was slower still, though nothing but silence pursued them. No horns, no shouting, no South Gate flung open to loose squadrons of horsemen upon them. Niall felt it most, knowing the blood he had spilled behind him and hoping they could reach their horses before the chase began. Though it was clear by now that none of the patrols had been close enough to hear his brief affray with the guards at the door, soon enough an officer would come to check their post or to bring them their relief.
For the others the journey was also long with concern. They knew only the little Niall had said at the door. Jalonn and Evénn had not let them linger. Explanations could wait until they knew they had no enemy behind them. Arden walked last of all, debating whether he should turn back to the City alone or wait until he could hear Niall’s tale. Agarwen stayed close by Arden.
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