03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 15.2

Just as they reached the woods around the house of Sorrow, they heard the horn calls rising at last from the City. Others from further south and east answered, then others echoed still more faintly until they were so far away that only the ears of Evénn could hear them. By that time they had crossed the grounds and entered the cellar. Jalonn lit the lamps near the door and faced Niall.
“Tell us what happened,” he said.
As briefly as he could, Niall explained how he had entered the City and gone home, how he had seen the dragon depart after sunset and not return, and how he had found the postern door guarded by true soldiers. His report contained all the necessary information, but Niall delivered it in a manner so fierce and utterly unlike him that it was at once clear he was holding something back. The answer was not far to seek. Arden knew at once that it lay in Niall’s returning to his home. Something happened to him there or else he found something there he had not mentioned. It pained Arden to think what it might be.
Master Jalonn took this in as well, weighing Niall’s words and silences against his savage mood. For a few moments he pondered it all, then said:
“Returning to your childhood home alone was a mistake.”
“How so?” Niall asked, almost surly at being questioned.
“It seems to have affected your judgment.”
Before Niall could respond, Evénn spoke up.
“If it was a mistake, Jalonn, it was a natural one, and not to be faulted now. Who would not wish to see his home after so long? And, had he gone elsewhere, we might not know about the dragon’s departure. What we shall do now, is the more important question.”
“Yes, what?” said Arden vehemently, his sense of Niall’s pain sharpening his own.
“Since we have made it back here undetected,” Master Jalonn said, “we should remain as long as we can safely do so. There are enough provisions for quite a while yet. In time the dragon will return, but, if we leave, we shall find it much more perilous to return. We need to vanish again for a time, and here is the place to do so. By dawn many will be hunting for us.”
“If I were one of the dragon’s men,” Agarwen said, “there would only be one question on my mind tonight. Did the killers of the guards come to the postern to get out or to let others in? After what happened at Prisca, Evénn, I would guess that it was to let you and your companions in. So I would hunt for you within the walls.”
“I doubt the dragon would have told them about me,” Evénn said.
“But he wouldn’t have to, don’t you see?” she replied. “Your name and your deeds are known to everyone, Evénn. I haven’t travelled as far as Arden or Niall or Master Jalonn, but I have seen children playing in the streets of the most remote towns, pretending to be you and your old comrades. Arden has seen it.  We've all seen it. Even the dragon cannot erase these memories. They are too much a part of us. And I can assure you that the men who removed the bodies from the streets of Prisca thought of you when they saw what happened there. And men talk, Evénn. Men talk. The dragon’s men know you are coming.”
“True enough,” Jalonn said, “but the commander of this City is no fool. Machlor understands that things are not always what they seem. He will have his men search outside the City as well. Still, there is little on these grounds to attract their attention. The cellar is clearly unknown. Else they would have plundered it years ago. Nevertheless we must ensure that we have left no tracks nearby to lead them to us. Arden, take Agarwen with you and search our path back as far as the field beyond the woods. You can find by night what the day will not disclose to them. But you must both be out of sight before it is fully day. Go now.”
“Yes, Master Jalonn,” Agarwen said. Arden was already out the door.
The two of them went straight to the far side of the wood, and slowly began working their way back, sweeping the ground closely, Arden first, then Agarwen following. By the time they had reached the garden again, the east showed the first hint of twilight; by the time they had crossed to its far side, the sky was pink and blue and orange; when the graves were just a few feet to their right, the red sun broke the horizon. Agarwen, amazed by how long the shadows cast by the low, grass covered mounds really were, smiled at the irony. Arden was on one knee examining something just ahead. To all appearances he never once looked at the graves, but she could almost sense their pull on him.
While Arden studied the ground and the first sun of morning flooded the garden, Agarwen allowed herself to be momentarily distracted by the beauty of the young sun, and watched its brightness grow as it lifted itself from the sea. She looked away and was lowering her eyes back to the ground, so they could complete their task and get out of sight, when she noticed that Arden was now looking straight into the sun. Something about his posture alarmed her. It had all the tension of a cat about to spring. His right hand was slowly plucking an arrow from his quiver. What he was looking at, she could not tell, but his head never stirred. She crept up beside him and glanced over. His eyes were the wide and tearing eyes of someone forcing himself to stare into the sun.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Look,” he said.
“I don’t see anything,” she said as she strained her eyes against the light.
“Then look again,” he said and leaped away.
In a few strides he was past the hill and starting down the slope to the beach.
“Arden, wait,” she called out. “Wait for Evénn.”
“Not this time,” his voice came drifting back to her.
She ran after him, knowing she should get the others but unwilling to let Arden face the dragon alone. Then she saw him, skimming just above the sea at tremendous speed, nearly invisible against the sun and the golden glare on the waves. In the time it took her to reach the bottom of the slope and cross the beach, the dragon grew much larger. His speed dismayed her. But waiting at the sea’s edge stood Arden, a tall figure, calm and unafraid, his face bright with morning, like the hero Agarwen had imagined him to be when she was a child. Then the wings of the beast filled the sky, and the sea itself seemed to be rising in wrath behind him. The sun was blotted out. She stood in shadow.
“Evénn!” she cried, turning, torn, thinking all was at an end.
But before Agarwen called his name, the dragonslayer had perceived the coming of evil. Already he was racing down through the tall grass to the beach, the sword of adamant flaming in his outstretched hand. At his side coursed the wolf and the hound. Behind came Jalonn and Niall.
With rising heart she turned again and heard the thrum of Arden’s bow – but not the words. The spell remained unspoken. The dragon slapped the arrow aside with careless ease.
“No, Arden,” she called out to him. “Use – ”
Arden let fly a second arrow, again in silence. This the beast engulfed with a jet of flame, which Arden and Agarwen had to dive aside to escape. As Arden sprang back to his feet, reaching for his quiver, the dragon veered up and away. With one of his talons he slashed at Arden, whom Evénn knocked out of its path at the last instant. Both fell to the ground, but the dragon was not done with them. For the rising sea, which Agarwen thought she had glimpsed in the dragon’s wake, was no illusion of terror.
She saw the green wave break over Arden and Evénn an instant before she was overwhelmed herself. It struck like a moving wall, tumbling her through a world now dark and hard, now soft and bright. It rolled on cold and strong, breathless, endless, timeless. No way up or out. No surface. No bottom. Only the sea. Then all at once it spurned her, casting her off as quickly as it had seized her. Agarwen was face down in mere inches of swirling water, tangled in the beach grass at the foot of the hill. Dragging herself to her knees she gulped air into her heaving chest, but when she tried to get to her feet the backwash of the wave now rushing seaward again took her unawares. She staggered and fell.
But strong hands seized Agarwen and lifted her up. She raised her eyes to the grim, sad face of Niall on one side and Master Jalonn on the other. They dragged her behind some rocks, to which they clung as the water raced foaming away. In a moment it was gone. Niall opened his mouth to speak, but Jalonn cut him off.
“Down!” he shouted, pulling them both to the sand.
A blast of the dragon’s flame flashed over them, immediately followed by the dragon himself. His tail lashed above them, striking the boulder they crouched behind and splitting it in two. Bits of stone rained down on them.
As Jalonn looked up to follow the flight of the beast, Arden was hauling Evénn out of the water far down the beach where the wave had washed them. The dragon was above them almost at once, slashing with claws and tail, but the sword of adamant parried every attack, burning more brightly with each blow. Then, crying out the words of the spell in a loud, clear voice, Evénn leaped high in the air. Back and up lurched the dragon, away from the blinding light of the sword. Yet Evénn’s thrust was swifter than the dragon’s retreat, and the sword’s very tip pierced his left front leg.
The wound was slight. But such was the might of the sword and the hand wielding it that a howl of pain and rage was torn from the dragon’s throat. He landed several dozen yards from Arden and Evénn. For what seemed an eternity, he stood glaring at them. His head was held low to the ground and his wings were unfurled to their full, majestic span. A murderous red light smoldered in his slitted eyes. His tail whipped back and forth, angrily lashing the shore. With a snap of his wings he stung them with a blast of sand. Then he breathed forth a gale of flame. Again the sword shone in answer and parted the flames, which raced around Arden and Evénn and down the beach.
The dragon drew himself back once more, and looked closely at them, narrowing his eyes. Then he spoke in a voice of serene disdain.
“From long ago I remember you, elf. Hero, they called you then, the dragonslayer. Well, here I stand alive, unslain, and far more powerful than I was before. What of that? Such as you cannot destroy me. To this boy here, no doubt, your kind may seem eternal, but we know better, don’t we? To me you last but the blink of an eye. Some of you even less than that: how is your family, dragonslayer? Do they live and breathe, or are they dust and ashes this age and more?”
The dragon laughed quietly to himself.
Evénn did not answer.
“Pitiful, dragonslayer, pitiful. Where have you been these last thirty years of the sun? I thought you would hide forever. We all did. Yet it seems you still have not grasped that all is different this time. This time you will die, but for you there is no returning, not until the ending of the world.”
Evénn still did not reply, but stood calmly, the glittering sword presented before him. His eyes were closed.
“Why won’t you answer or look at me, elf? Do you fear me so? Twice now this boy has looked me in the eyes. A fool he may be, but at least he is unafraid. His hatred has untrammeled his heart. I can feel it. Powerful, beautiful, it beats upon my brow like the heat of the sun. Isn’t that so, boy?” he said and looked at Arden.
Arden’s answer was an arrow loosed straight at the dragon’s eyes. Just before it struck the beast snatched it from the air. With a grin he held it up for them to see as he turned it this way and that and examined it. The shaft kindled in his talon and vanished in flame.
“Aren’t you forgetting something, boy?” the dragon mocked, gently at first, as if they were the oldest of friends, but then his voice grew harsh. “Fool, did you not think that I could take that spell from you just as we took everything else? You are not Mahar. You have not the faith to stand alone. No, no, the bow doesn’t suit you at all. Are you the best the dragonslayer could come up with? Did you think that I wouldn’t know you’d lead them here, man of sorrow?”
With a snarl Arden loosed another arrow, which was again plucked from the air and destroyed.
“Look at me,” the dragon commanded.
The power of his voice was terrible. The beast’s will seemed to reach out and close around him like a great hand. Now Arden tried to avert his gaze, but found he could not. The outward contest did not last long. Arden grew still. The dragon only smiled.
“That’s better,” he said softly. “Now we can do much together. Stand aside. We shall speak when my revels here are done.”
Arden turned and walked away, far past the dragon, until he stood with the waves washing his feet. The beast watched him go, then looked back at Evénn.
“Now, elf, now, slayer of dragons, it is just we two.”
Evénn’s eyes opened. A light shone there and all around him. He leaped forward like an arrow from a bow. In a great arc he swung the blade and a blue flame sprang from it, curving through the air like a whip. The dragon deflected the blow with a wave of his talon, but another followed, then another. Evénn drove the dragon slowly backward, step by step, but no matter how hard he pressed him, he could not get close enough to strike him again with the sword itself.
After a dozen more blows the dragon seemed almost to stumble. Then his tail darted from behind him and its tip struck Evénn hard in the side, staggering him. For an instant the light around Evénn and the sword dimmed. Now the tide of battle shifted. The beast was driving Evénn, forcing him to give ground. And as swift as the elf was, the dragon was swifter. Talons, tail, wings, jaws, and flame all battered at Evénn’s guard, striking as quickly and in as many places as lightning on a summer’s evening. Yet Evénn withstood each attack, retreating until at last they came to a stand again. Evénn’s eyes were shut once more and his sword did not waver, but he was breathing heavily. The dragon crouched, then rose up to his full height, towering over the still, small figure before him.
“We end this,” he said.
The beast threw back his head and roared. In that cry echoed the deaths of all who had fallen and the pain of all who had endured the ages of his cruelty. The horror of it stunned the waves and laid the sea flat. The wind dropped. The morning failed.
Down at the water’s edge Arden heard that cry, heard the souls that seemed imprisoned within the dragon’s sunless heart. He tried to tear his eyes away from the mirror calm sea, but his body would not answer his will. All he could do was look upon the water and listen to the myriad voices calling out across the years from the last night of Narinen. Their chorus swelled with every death, with every life of suffering thereafter. Arden had heard that cry before, at the Mountain Gate and in the City square. His face burned where the dragon’s blood had touched it long ago. The sting of it was on his tongue. He recognized his own voice among the thousands.
“Man of Sorrow,” he murmured to himself as the roaring ceased. Then through the murk of the spell he felt a gentle hand come to rest on his shoulder from behind. A thrill ran through him. Arden knew that touch. He turned his head in time to see the beast lunge forward at Evénn.
The rush of fire from the dragon’s jaws was met by the blue of the sword. As before the flames parted and swirled around Evénn and went streaming past him down the beach, but now the fire did not cease or slacken. The brilliance of the sword was swallowed up within the flames. Even then they did not stop. The very sands of the beach glowed red, melting in the furnace of the dragon’s wrath.
“Die!” cried Niall as his sword shattered on the right side of the dragon’s head. It did him no harm, but it interrupted his attack on Evénn. The beach was rolling with fire for a hundred yards in front of the dragon. There was no sign of Evénn. The dragon tilted his head sideways away from Niall and looked down upon him from the corner of his eye. Before Niall could react, the dragon seized and held him fast in one talon.
A shadow moved to his left and an arrow appeared, flickering with a green light. It splintered harmlessly against the dragon’s eye and fell burning to the sands. The beast looked around, more amused than concerned. There was no one to be seen. Another useless arrow appeared, this time from a different quarter. A third arrow followed and a fourth. But while the dragon did not see the bowman, he did spy Agarwen, the wolf, and Argos hoping to sneak up close along his side while he was distracted. All were dashed to the ground by a twitch of his tail.
He turned again to consider Niall, who was vainly gasping for breath and trying to pry open the talon that held him. Arrows from the still undiscovered foe struck him over and again, harmlessly all, and he ignored them. He laughed to himself and hurled Niall away from him. Then with a quick glare to his left he pierced the spells that concealed his last attacker. Jalonn stood revealed. He had one arrow left.
“I see you,” the dragon said in a voice nearly charming. “Yes, yours was the spell that sealed the tavern door in Prisca. I recognize its likeness to this one. Not bad,” he paused, “but not enough.”
Jalonn shot his last arrow and began to reach for his sword. With a dismissive wave of his talon through the empty air, the arrow was deflected and Jalonn knocked sprawling. The dragon gazed about him as if disappointed. His attackers lay strewn about on the sands or were struggling to their feet far away.
Farther down the beach the line of fire had now cooled and was burning lower, but the flames nearest him, where Evénn had stood, still blazed fiercely. On either side of the line, the sand had turned to glass.
“Are you still there, dragonslayer? Tell me you still live. These ones are no sport at all. But we can’t all be elf lords, I suppose.”
“I live,” said Evénn, who strode unscathed from the wall of fire. The light of his eyes and power was less than before, but his blade was still as bright. Its light glittered off the glassy sands as he advanced to meet the dragon. The beast opened his mouth, but it was another voice that spoke. He turned in surprise.
For the voice was Arden’s. And it cried out the words of power as he swiftly drew and released a shaft from Mahar’s bow. The arrow flew true, tracing a radiant green arc through the morning air. The beast recoiled, but too late. Struck high in the neck behind the jaw, the dragon stumbled in agony, but managed to keep his feet beneath him. One claw reached up and wrenched the arrow from the wound. Dark blood spurted out and soaked the sand beneath him. Stunned and enraged, he stared at Arden, who was raising the bow a second time. But Evénn darted forward and plunged the sword of adamant deep into the base of the dragon’s throat.
His cry of pain was shattering. And in the City, and miles and miles away across the coastlands in the fortress by the Great Road, and farther off still at Prisca high in the Green Hills, its echoes struck dread into the hearts of his soldiers and servants. They recognized that cry for what it was. They grew afraid. His thousands of slaves and subjects heard it, too, and knew that the world had changed once again. From their drudgery and troubles and starveling meals they raised their eyes, to see the dragon’s men stunned and trembling, and they began to rise up.
On the strand the dragon tottered and crumpled to the earth. His blood so stained the sands that no flood tide or winter of rains could ever wash them clean. From that day men called them the Blood Sands and would not walk upon them. The beast’s eyes were fading quickly. Their power was gone. He looked up at Evénn and Arden, who both now returned his gaze. Arden held another arrow notched in the bow.
“You have only made it worse for yourselves. I will not die entirely.”
“But die you will,” said Evénn, and setting his foot on the dragon’s throat, twisted the sword in the wound and tore it out. The blade smoked. Blood ran from it to pool at his feet. The light and malice in the dragon’s eyed went out. He was dead.
Evénn walked down to the water’s edge to cleanse his blade. It hissed as he submerged it, burning with the heat of the dragon’s blood. A long time passed in which the only sounds were of the waves, now rolling in to the beach once more, and of the wind in the beach grasses. Evénn stayed on one knee in the shallows, allowing the sea to wash him and his sword, while Arden stood over the carcass of the monster. Slowly the others gathered. Niall and Argos were limping. The wolf joined Evénn at the water. Arden knelt down beside Argos and wrapped his arm around him. He stroked his chest and put his head alongside that of the hound, who craned his head around to lick his cheek. They looked in silence at the dragon.
Evénn returned, putting up his sword and dousing its light. Weariness hung from him. He looked at Arden with a mixture of displeasure, relief, and sympathy. For Arden had not waited, and that had nearly been their undoing. Arden met his eyes briefly, then turned back to the dragon. He did not look pleased. Neither did Jalonn.
“Arden, you nearly killed us all,” Jalonn said. His voice was cold, and angrier than Arden had heard it since their early days together. “Why did you not wait? We fought this battle on his terms because of your hatred.”
“That wasn’t it, Jalonn,” Arden answered him softly.
“What was it then?”
“He already knew we were here. Didn’t you hear him? And he was coming straight for us – ask Agarwen. She was there. She saw him, too. The time had simply come.”
Jalonn looked quickly, dubiously, at Agarwen, who nodded to confirm what Arden had said, but the swordmaster was still hardly pleased.
“Don’t be too hard on him, Jalonn,” Evénn broke in before he could speak again. “After Prisca the dragon was bound to find us sooner or later, and it is difficult to fight dragons on any terms but theirs. So much power confounds all planning.”
“Even so,” Niall said, “how did he know precisely where to find us?”
“I think it was me,” Arden said.
“Tell us why, Arden,” Evénn asked as if he already knew the answer.
“I have the black dragon’s blood on me,” he said. “I tasted it the night Narinen fell. That’s why this dragon could touch my mind in Prisca once you drew his attention there, Evénn, and why he appeared so many times near Baran’s camp. He could sense the blood on me, and this time he found me. Isn’t that right, Evénn?”
“I believe so,” he said.
“That’s a troubling thought,” Niall said, “with our errand hardly begun.”
Jalonn looked sidelong at Evénn.
“How long before they come?” he asked.
“If the silver dragon is in Elashandra, we have perhaps a week.” Evénn said, never taking his eyes off Arden. “For the others it will take longer.”
“We leave tomorrow night,” Jalonn said.
“What I need to understand, Arden,” Evénn said, “is how you escaped his spell. I thought you were lost. The dragon thought so, too, or he would never have turned his back on you, not with Mahar’s bow in your hand.”
“Evénn,” Arden began, then hesitated as if he did not know what to say, “when he commanded me to look at him, it was like a great hand seized me and hurled me down a slope so steep and uncertain that no matter how I struggled I could never make my way back up it again. I was drowning in his power. When he told me to stand aside, my body obeyed. Inside I was screaming, fighting back, but nothing ever seemed so hopeless.”
“And then?”
“But when he roared, I heard his cry as I had never heard it before. Perhaps it was because of the blood or the spell, perhaps because you had wounded him, or because he was so intent on you that he forgot me. I don’t know. This time all I could think of was those who lived and died with that cry in their ears. All I’d lost came back to me. I could almost touch them. Then – then I remembered the words and knew I could fight him.”
Evénn waited for more.
“That’s all there is,” Arden said with a shrug.
“Very well,” Evénn replied, and to Agarwen’s eyes he appeared no more satisfied with Arden’s explanation than Jalonn had been before.
“What now?” she asked.
“For now,” Evénn answered, “we keep our eyes open. Soldiers may come. They may not. The fall of their Master will devastate and confuse them. Many will probably take flight. I have a feeling, though, that those who do not flee will have their hands full.”
“And soon the others will come,” Jalonn said, “and the war of retribution will begin. Bloody days await.”
“But we have succeeded today,” Agarwen said. “That is something.”
“It is quite a lot,” Jalonn said thoughtfully, “but we must conceal ourselves and see what else the day brings.”
“Evénn,” said Arden as they began to leave the beach, “what do you think the dragon’s last words meant?”
“What did he say?” Agarwen asked, looking at Arden who walked beside her.
“That we had only made it worse for ourselves by killing him,” Evénn replied, “that he would not die entirely. But I don’t know what he meant.”
“Doubtless we will learn in time,” Jalonn said.
“Just so,” Evénn answered. “That’s what frightens me most.”
Throughout the day, as always, they kept watch. After about an hour, Jalonn saw a strong detachment of mounted troopers approaching along the shore from the north. A hundred yards from the carcass they halted. Two rode forward. Their horses became harder and harder to control the closer they came. At last the horses grew so wild the riders had to turn back. Heading north towards the City at a dead run, they passed the other horsemen, and waved for them to follow. They did so at once, eager to be gone. Jalonn watched them out of sight, and, though he found much to trouble him in the events of the day, he smiled a smile that no one living had ever seen.
“Now let the tables turn,” he said.
That afternoon, on the far side of the garden, among the broken and scarred trees that refused to die, Niall found Agarwen watching the City. All day long scattered parties of horsemen had been riding back and forth over the plain, but there seemed little purpose to their movements. From what she could tell at this distance the same was also true along the walls. Steel glittered here and there, always in motion. Several hours ago smoke had started rising from inside the City. Now the fires were spreading. Flames could be seen, and the taste of smoke was in her mouth.
“She’s burning again, just like before,” Niall said as he sat down beside her.
“No, these flames are different,” Agarwen stated with some conviction.
“I hope so,” Niall replied, giving her a weak smile.
Agarwen got up.
“Get some sleep,” he said.
“I will,” she said and left him. His eyes were fixed on the City.
Agarwen walked back through the trees. For the first time she realized that these were the trees Arden had ridden through that terrible morning. Ahead of her across the garden lay the three graves. She half expected Arden to be there, almost wanted him to be, but he was not. The closer she came to them, the harder it became to look away. Agarwen wondered which grave was hers. There was so much and so little in a grave, she thought. At the last moment she looked away, trying to ignore a past that was not her own.
But the thought of those inescapable days and what they meant even now did not let her go so easily. The past followed her around the hill and down the slope to the wooded lane. She stopped outside the cellar door. Arden would be within, asleep perhaps. Agarwen decided to go look at the sea for a while. Between the trees and the rocks there was the fading hint of a path. It led off south, cutting diagonally across the easy slope, away from the melted sands where the dragon lay dead. At the bottom, where the red clay of the hill met the sand of the shore, a wide swath of beach grass grew, tall and trembling in the westerly breeze. Here she stopped and knelt down. Small waves curled and broke. Somewhere off to her left in these same grasses, Jalonn had concealed himself to keep watch on the shoreline.
“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” Evénn said.
Agarwen had not seen him lying there, not far off to her right, staring up at the sky.
“I thought I’d look at the sea first.”
He did not answer. They rested there for some time without speaking. His eyes were upon the heavens, hers on the sea. Finally he stood up, and brushed the sand from his clothing. It was time for him to relieve Jalonn. She looked up, and their eyes met. He looked like he had spent the day trying to find the missing piece to a puzzle.
“You’re thinking about Arden,” she said.
“Aren’t you?”
In her mind she could hear herself laughing softly.
“I told you he would never betray her,” she said.
He looked closely at her for so long she wished he would go away. Then he nodded and went off to find Jalonn.
The fires burned all night. By morning tall plumes of black smoke drifted off eastward on the wind. To Arden it was like the morning he could remember only in bitterness and pain. The day before that he had chosen one love over another and he had chosen wrong. Every day since then he had walked the path of remorse he had blazed for himself. Had he chosen differently, he told himself, they both might have died, would have died even. But had they lived, even in this world there would have been light. Now, this morning, he sat beside the grave that divided them, a boundary neither could cross except with their love. All through the years he had mourned her and rued his choice. Beside the grave he sat and weighed the loss that his vengeance had not lessened. He sighed heavily and began the litany to clear his mind and attempt to find some peace. He closed his eyes and laid his hand on her grave.
Someone was coming up from behind him. By his walk he knew it was Niall.
“How’s the leg?” he asked quietly.
“Better,” Niall answered in a low voice. “May I speak with you, Arden?”
“I’d rather be alone, Niall.”
“Not today, Arden. I have some things I want to show you.”
Arden beckoned him to a seat.
Niall sat down opposite him, and stared awhile at the grave. Arden looked at him with a face that strove to be impassive, but Niall saw more deeply.
“What is it, Niall?”
“When I was in the City, I went to my old house.”
“I know. Jalonn didn’t think it such a good idea.”
“He may be right. It was painful. It changed me.”
“That’s what pain does.”
“Much of me wishes I had never gone there, but some of me is relieved I did. Do you understand?”
Arden pondered, his eyes straying to her grave. For a minute or so he did not reply.
“What was it you wished to show me?” he asked.
“First I must tell you the whole story of my homecoming.”
Niall then began to tell Arden of his house and his home, of his mother and father, of his sisters, of all he had felt and found and lost the day he finally came home. As he spoke he drew from his pack the hairbrush and the mirror, his mother’s needlework and his father’s book of poetry. One by one he passed them to Arden, who examined each of them reverently before handing them back. Niall told him of his rage and his despair. Once or twice Arden nodded slightly, keeping his lips tightly sealed to repress the pain of sympathy. When Niall finished, Arden looked carefully at him.
“Thank you for telling me. What will you do with the things you brought away?”
“I will give them to my children and my wife, to keep alive the memory of my family.”
“It is hard to face loss like this close up,” Arden said, casting his eyes down. “I am sorry for your sufferings, Niall.”
“As I am for yours,” Niall answered, and paused long enough for Arden to look up again, “and for my part in them.”
A fierce pain shot across Arden’s face, causing him to wince and avert his gaze, but soon his composure returned.
“It was no fault of yours,” he said earnestly.
“Arden, I married the woman my heart chose, and with her I have known every blessing. You were cheated of that.”
“Not least by my own choices.”
“You could not have saved her.”
Arden remained quiet, striving to rule his mind and heart. He wished Niall would leave him to study the pain which brimmed within him. At length Niall stood up and started to go, but after a few steps he stopped. With his head bowed, he looked back over his shoulder.
“She loved you, Arden,” Niall said.
Arden did not answer or watch him go. His eyes were shut tight. Then to his lips came a sudden, clean tang of salt, like the seas of lost summer mornings. And alone beside the grave of Sorrow, Arden wept the tears he could not weep thirty years ago.

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