03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 2.1

Two

Late in the afternoon two days earlier, six of the dragon’s men had entered the small town of Kinabra, where Arden was stopping for the afternoon. On the right breast of their black cloaks was embroidered the insignia of the red dragon who ruled this land. From the porch of the tavern he had seen them come riding down the street, a pair of mountain wolves trotting ahead of them, sniffing out whatever trouble they could make, running off the few dogs that had not taken to their heels the moment the scent of wolf first came down the wind. Seated in the deep shade at the back of the inn’s broad porch, Arden watched them, never lifting his head from the wall against which it rested. Argos, his head up and ears back, had his eyes on them, too, the wolves especially, as he lay on the top step of the porch.
Concealed by the low wooden wall that screened the porch from the street, Arden loosened his sword in its scabbard, leaned his war bow against the table, and slipped the quiver’s strap over his shoulder. The hound gathered his hind legs beneath him. Tethered to a rail in front of the inn, Arden’s horse, Night, tossed his head and snorted, not liking the sudden tension in the air, or the wolves. The sun was now right above the tavern’s roof. It would blind anyone looking up at him from the street.
“Good,” he thought. “Let it begin soon.”
The men of the dragon, four troopers, a lieutenant, and a captain, reined in outside a smithy about thirty yards up the street to his right. Their wolves came somewhat closer. When the captain and lieutenant dismounted, the others spread out slowly across the street, the two of them with bows turning to face back the way they had come. The troopers inspected the town with the eyes of men practiced at finding fault and dealing out punishment for the least breach of the dragon’s law. The few townsfolk still in the open averted their eyes and hurried by, searching for any shelter they could find. As the dragon captain led his horse towards the blacksmith’s, the lieutenant looped his horse’s reins over a rail and followed. He pretended not to be watching the Arden.
From his seat in the shade Arden studied them and waited. He could feel the trouble coming. He sipped the last of his water. To his left the tavern door opened, and the innkeeper peered out, taking in the scene on the dusty street. He and Arden exchanged looks. Arden nodded to him and slipped a half dozen old silver coins on the table. With a shrug and a frown the innkeeper pulled the door shut. Its bolt slid home. Arden could hear the innkeeper inside trying to hush his crowd of regular patrons. Better to attract no attention, was his idea. But the tavern was already under the eye of the dragon’s men, as the innkeeper and Arden both knew; and taverns were never quiet at the end of a long, hot day just before harvest time.
Someone in the town had alerted the dragon’s men to the arrival of a Ranger. Outlawed by the dragon along with all they stood for, the Rangers were all that remained of the old Republic. The wild lands and forests were their home, not the scattered towns or half-ruined cities they entered only at their peril. So many years had passed since the Republic fell that many people acted like they did not remember it, preferring a harsh survival to a cruel death, while others embraced the world of the dragon from fear, greed, or both. By now few enough were left who had truly seen the Republic, though in mockery of its traditions the dragon had retained the forms and names of its magistracies. In truth the Republic was nothing more than a ghost, and the Rangers its ghostly attendants. Yet the head of one of these servants on a pike brought in gold enough for an informer to live well for many, many years.
“Blacksmith, my horse has thrown a shoe,” the captain called out, but Arden could see that he had not.
Stepping from the forge within, the blacksmith answered, with a look of some hope on his face. For the captain had been born his brother.
“As you please, captain sir, but might I just finish repairing this scythe first? I’ve just got the fire hot enough.”
The heads of two of the mounted soldiers snapped around towards the shop. The others maintained their watch on the street, one looking each way. Halting a few feet from the smithy door, the captain addressed him.
“You presume too much, blacksmith, because we were once brothers,” he said coolly. “The dragon’s laws scorn all ties of blood. You should know that. You will comply.”
“Yes, captain,” muttered the smith, in a tone as disappointed and surly as the look in his eye, and took the reins of the captain’s horse.
“Fool,” the lieutenant growled, “I’ll teach you how to address the captain.”
Drawing his sword, he started forward, since the captain gave no sign to check him. He swept it up and back behind him to deliver a forehand stroke.
The thrum of the Ranger’s bowstring was heard only in the instant the arrow struck the lieutenant’s right shoulder, adding its impetus to the backward sweep of his arm. His sword slipped from his hand as he twisted round with a cry, his knees buckling. In that long moment before he spun to the ground, everyone began to move. The mounted troopers looking Arden’s way spurred their horses forward; the other two wheeled theirs and stood their ground, unslinging their bows. Argos leaped from the porch to meet the wolves as they sprang towards the inn. Already drawing his bow again, Arden crossed the porch to shelter behind the thick post which supported the corner of the roof. His bowstring sounded, and a second arrow found its mark in the side of the nearer wolf. It fell forward into the dust, choking on its own blood. The third arrow hit the other in the haunch just before Argos reached it. The long haired black hound, already a match for the wolf in size and speed, made short work of his injured opponent.
Two arrows from the stationary troopers stuck the wooden post in front of the Ranger. His reply struck the horse of the nearer one in the chest. It reared and fell over sideways, pinning its rider and breaking his leg. The first of the two charging riders had now reached the inn, but hesitated, fearing not only to climb the porch and be caught in his own bowman’s line of sight, but also to confront the Ranger alone if his bowman refrained from shooting. A costly doubt. The Ranger’s next arrow took him in the throat and toppled him from his horse.
The second rider knew no doubt and began to ride up the steps with sword drawn. But he forgot the dog in the street behind him until it struck him in the back. They fell to the ground together, but then the hound was on his chest, rending the trooper’s hands, arms, and face as he strove to fend the dog from his throat.
His cries and the dog’s snarling blended with the hoof beats of the last rider, who now charged straight down the street at Arden. Rising in the stirrups, he drew his bow. They loosed their arrows simultaneously. Arden’s nicked the ear of the rider’s horse as it passed, striking the rider himself in the groin; the trooper’s arrow hissed by, drawing blood from Arden’s left cheek and hitting the wall behind him. The rider fell backwards over his horse.
In all this the captain alone had made no movement. Thumbs hooked through his sword-belt, he stood silently observing. His brother, the blacksmith, stood near him dumbfounded. With the last rider down, Arden descended the front steps to the street. He called Argos off as he passed. The hound licked blood from his snout as he trotted over. The fallen rider was still alive, but badly mauled. Somehow he had kept Argos’ teeth from his throat, but the terror of them still worked on his mind. He held out his bloody hands and arms, warding off a threat that no longer existed. For now he was no danger.
Down the street, the captain patted the smith on the back and said something to him in a low voice. With a smile he pulled a bag of coins from his belt and tossed them at his brother’s feet. The blacksmith, startled, left the coins where they lay, and hurried back to his forge, casting an anxious look at Arden as he disappeared through the doors. True fear was on his face now. His brother had just betrayed him to the Ranger and to his neighbors, marking him for all his days as the dragon’s creature. The gold his brother had promised him for information was no kindness after all, but a trap set for his avarice. From now on the smith would stand alone. The other townsfolk would shun him now, most because they shrank from the servile reflection of themselves they saw in him, but a few – the old innkeeper for one – because they had not forgotten the world before the dragons came. And some day, or some night, another Ranger would come for him. The smith had never guessed the Ranger would survive the troopers’ first assault; or that his brother would play him so false.
The captain stood in the street, still unmoving. A cold smile almost lifted the corners of his mouth, as he saw the Ranger’s keen eyes take all this in before they shifted to meet his own. Arden walked slowly backwards the few paces to his horse, never glancing away from the dragon captain. His outstretched hand soothed and calmed his horse. Turning his back on the other man at last, he pulled the reins from the hitching rail and mounted. As he backed Night slowly away from the tavern, he looked once more at the captain, and urged his horse to a trot towards the northern end of the town. Argos briefly stared at the captain, then went running after his master.
As Arden rode on he considered those moments of action, few in reality though long in seeming. It struck him as odd that the captain had made no move, since he probably was the most formidable of the riders. Men did not become captains of the dragon through cowardice. This he knew well. Harsh, cruel, and treacherous they surely were, but they were also talented and brave. Nor were they fools. There was more yet to come. Of that Arden was now certain. For the captain had stood by and spent the lives of his men to discover the abilities of the Ranger. Had they killed him outright, as he no doubt hoped, so much the better. But if they did not, there had to be more men in reserve somewhere, to take him if flushed out, to storm any defensive position he might find. And when the outlaws they pursued were Rangers, the dragon’s men would know that they defended well any position they took and made their opponents pay dearly for their heads. So first came a test of strength and skill, then, if necessary, another squad or two would emerge to finish off the prey they had cornered or flushed.
“I would spring the trap just about now,” thought Arden when he approached the last building on the street, a storehouse of some size that could easily mask a squad of troopers. He spurred his horse to a run a second before the soldiers rode out from behind the building and turned to block the street. With a shout, he rode straight for the center of their line, surprising them. Arden had time for one arrow to find a man’s throat before he was upon them. Then grasping his bow with both hands he hit the man beside him hard across the face, and dashed between them. Now he was behind them and riding hard, his head down beside his horse’s neck, and the great hound running full out beside them.
He rode like the wind, and like the wind they followed. The sound of a great horn went up and echoed behind him. So there was at least one more squadron behind him, probably near the southern end of the town in case he had sought to escape that way. Of the troopers Arden had fought at the inn, all except the captain were dead or useless. They passed from his mind the moment he thought of them, but the terror of the trooper savaged by Argos stayed with him. Even as he rode the man’s face lingered in his mind, giving him a satisfaction he did not enjoy.
Again the horn sounded, and another, farther off, now answered its summons. An arrow hissed by him. Glancing back, Arden took stock. He had seventeen arrows left in his quiver; in his pack was enough food for three days, longer at need; and both Night and Argos were trained to run swiftly for many miles. Yet they could not do so forever. And the wolves, though not as swift, were relentless and strong. The dragon’s men had underestimated him at the inn, to be sure, but their captain would do not do so again. Arden had to make it to the forest, still two miles away on his left. Once there, the balance would shift.
Behind him gaps were appearing in the pursuit, as the faster riders outpaced the slower. The two closest to Arden were more than forty yards ahead of the next two, and the last of the five lagged even farther back than that. In all nearly a hundred yards separated the first of the horsemen from the last. Their captain never would have allowed that now that he had proven the quality of his foe. But the captain was not with them – he still trailed far behind, just emerging from Kinabra with the other squad of troopers. Arden was, and he meant to lessen the odds against him while the dragon’s men were still divided. For now at least the dragon’s men would answer to him for their errors.
Gradually Arden slowed down allowing the troopers to narrow the distance between them. Then he veered left towards the closest part of the forest, which brought the setting sun into their eyes. Pulling an arrow from his quiver, Arden rose in his stirrups, turned and shot at the nearest rider, who ducked and swerved away. But now his horse was broadside to the Ranger, whose second arrow pierced his thigh, pinning it to his horse. Both fell together.
Arden had only a glimpse of the second horseman’s bloody face before the man was upon him. It was the trooper he had struck in the face at the edge of town. Sword held high he rushed at Arden, who reined his horse hard to the right and let the rider shoot by him. His sword slashing the empty air beside the Ranger’s head. Arden spun immediately back to his left as the rider turned his own mount to meet him.
With his right hand Arden unsheathed his sword, while swinging his bow with his left. This time he struck the horse hard across the nose. The horse shied at the pain, disturbing his rider’s aim. Arden stabbed the man beneath his left arm. Spurring Night back to a full gallop, Arden could hear the agonized cries of the man and the neighing of the horse as he raced once more towards the forest, which was still over a mile away.
The others were much closer now. Hooves beat loudly on the turf, muffling the cries of the wounded men Arden had left behind him. The troopers’ arrows sang through the air around him, but with the sun glaring at them over the tree tops, the Ranger was little more than a swift shadow against the gloom of the forest. Again his horse gained ground. Four more times Arden stood in his saddle and turned, careful to wait for all of Night’s feet to be off the ground before loosing his arrows. Another trooper fell. One of the wolves yelped as he ran from a slight wound to his hind leg. Only two men remained when the Ranger reached the forest and plunged inside.
The sun had now set, and Arden quickly faded into the twilight beneath the trees. First the one rider, wounded slightly in the right arm, then the second, and slowest, rider halted at the edge. The wolves were already there, pacing impatiently along the line of trees, heads down and panting. The men looked at each other.
“Let’s wait out here for the captain and the others,” the first said. “The wolves can track him easily enough, and with two full squads we’ll run him to ground. The two of us alone are no match for him in there.”
“From what I saw, the six of us were no match for him out here either,” the second answered.
They stared at each other thoughtfully.
“Right, then,” said the first with a decisive nod. “We’ll send the wolves in after him. In you go, lads. Find him and that damned dog.”
The wolves vanished into the forest.
After several hundred yards Arden swung back to the northeast and began to weave in and out of the trees. Some miles ahead there lay a path, now narrow and overgrown, which was all that remained of the road which ran north from Kinabra. Once it had been broad and well tended, but the dragon and his minions neglected it, as they did all things but gold and power, and the wood had nearly reclaimed the road for its own. While there were still some merchants who traveled the roads, the old, regular traffic had withered away. Men found it safer to remain near home and mind their own business. Travelers were viewed with suspicion by the dragon’s men and the local people alike. Without a traveling pass, purchased for steep fees eked out with bribes, those whom the dragon’s men caught abroad found only trouble. The Rangers seldom used the roads. They kept to the still wilder paths of the forests, mountains, and empty lands. By the time Arden crossed this road, it would be fully dark.
For now the pursuit had cooled. The two surviving troopers had not followed him, though that would not keep their wolves from tracking him while they waited for the captain and the other squadron. Then they would follow the trail straight to him. About a mile into the forest, Arden stopped and dismounted. Directly in his path grew a strong, old oak, and to his left a dense thicket, impenetrable except near the ground. On its far side, he tethered Night, stroking his head gently to soothe and thank him. On his return he concealed Argos beneath the thicket’s lowest branches, and began climbing the tree. He settled into a fork between two large boughs about eight feet up.
In the failing twilight ten minutes later the wolves came, slow and stealthy. With their snouts pressed to the earth, they crossed and re-crossed the trail, but never strayed far from it. Between the oak and the thicket they stopped, as if sifting the thousand hints their senses brought them. Their heads swayed one way, then another, and their nostrils tested the air. This place was rich with the scent of man and horse and hound. They waited, knowing their prey was near.
After a few minutes one of them suddenly trotted some yards past the oak, but he returned immediately. There was something off about the trail. It led off around the thicket, then back again. The wolves began circling, reexamining every inch of ground, every bush and tree. Then the larger lifted his head as if he had found the answer he was looking for. Ears back, teeth bared, he lifted each foot with silent care and set it down again as he moved towards the thicket. The other sniffed among the roots of the oak again, and slowly looked up. A green glow lit his eyes from within as he sprang up at the man in the tree.
In the gloom Arden doubted his aim until that pale gaze met his own. An arrow flew from his bow. The wolf yelped in unexpected pain, and fell back. Arden leaped down after him, striking him with all his weight and knocking him to the ground. He tried to pin the wolf beneath him as he drew his dagger, but even wounded the beast was strong. Arden stabbed at the writhing, snapping, clawing shape until it lay still. Only when the wolf’s life ebbed away and Arden stood panting over him, did he hear the sounds of Argos’ battle with the other wolf.
He drew his sword and turned, but the night defeated his eyes. Two huge, indistinct shapes crashed through the bushes around them, rolling each other over and over, yelping, growling, snarling. Each sought a grip on the other’s throat. Arden did not know which was Argos. The two jumped apart, and crouched back, silently preparing to fight again. Even so Arden could not tell them apart, did not know which to strike at.
Then it was over. As the one lunged forward, the other sprang high in the air, twisting sideways, and came down next to him. His head darted in. His jaws snapped shut. One fell dead. The other stood over him briefly, making sure, then turned towards Arden, who gripped his sword more tightly and waited. After a moment he heard a low, guttural sound that was not quite a bark, a sound he knew. Arden lowered his sword, now realizing that he had been holding his breath. Argos trotted over, wagging his tail. Arden knelt and rubbed the wolfhound’s head and flanks. He found no serious wounds. Argos thrust his bloody snout up to Arden’s face.
“No, lad,” he said, laughing and gently pushing the hound away, “There’s enough blood on me already today. Let’s get moving.”
Together they walked around the thicket to his horse, and resumed their course to the northeast and the road, the ground rising as they made their way. Soon a shallow stream of cool, clear water crossed their path, running down to the lake that lay east of Kinabra. Here they paused, and after they had drunk their fill, Arden dipped his water skin beneath the surface to refill it. As he felt the current rush around his hand, he listened to the sweet music of the water coursing by in the darkness. Then he rose and mounted.
They splashed their way over to the far side, then headed southeast along the bank for several hundred yards before entering the stream once more and returning the way they had come, using the water to mask their trail and slow the pursuit. As they reached the spot where they had crossed the stream a few minutes earlier, a horn blew wild and dim in the far distance, then another, closer seemed to answer. Arden sped up, riding through the shallows until after about a half mile he came upon a stony shore, where he left the stream behind for good.
The meaning of the horns eluded him. Had the two troopers at the woods’ edge sounded their horn to guide the captain? But the wolves coming up with the captain had a plain trail strewn with bodies to follow. Or were the two men simply anxious that the Ranger they chased would return to kill them now that the sun was down? If so, silence would defend them better. Or were there even more soldiers they were trying to summon? And what of the desperate note the first horn had sounded? Had they encountered another Ranger by chance? Deer were abundant in these lands, and at times in the fall of the year Rangers came to hunt them for their winter’s food. That was why Arden was here now. He had entered Kinabra on an impulse. There were too many possibilities for Arden to sift. He spurred his horse.
When he arrived at the road an hour later, it seemed even more lonely than it had this morning. The moon still hung too low over the forest to shine down into the narrow gap between the trees on either side. Arden listened. Aside from the hiss of the wind through the turning leaves all he heard was a nightingale somewhere off to his right. For ten minutes there was no movement on the road. Finally he urged Night forward onto the road. A wolf howled.
“So they set a wolf to watch the road?” he muttered, nodding to himself. “Well, they would have tracked us this way anyway.”
Argos glanced up at him in the darkness as the woods closed around them once more.
They kept moving. The wolf kept howling.
Even in the dark Arden’s knowledge of the forest and woodland paths allowed them to move rapidly. And, unlike the dragon’s men, he knew where he was heading. They were ignorant of the woods – the troopers seldom entered places where the Rangers were at home – and their need to track him along the wandering course he followed would slow them down. Yet their captain was a local man of about Arden’s age. The forest at night would not be as mysterious and frightening to him as it was to his men. The voice of the wolf kept calling to them. Arden’s lead would be shorter than he hoped.
The ground rose steadily as they moved north and east. Before long pines began to replace the oaks and maples of the lower forest. It would take several hours to reach the next path he sought, which came up from the south through the part of the forest that lay east of the town, and wound its way upward into the old, worn mountains to the east. At their summit was a gap beyond which the hills descended to another valley and a river.
Along that wandering switch-backed trail, which was quite wide in some places, the undergrowth of the broad-leafed forest yielded entirely to the pines and the needle covered ground of the heights. Up near the pass he could set an ambush and shoot down at the dragon’s men from above, since the winding road and the incline of the hills would allow him to be within bowshot but high above them. But he would not approach the pass until the hours before dawn. Then, having lessened the odds again, he could ride through the gap in the hills and down to the river. Once across he could make another stand and make them pay dearly for their crossing.
“Of course, we may not have any arrows left by then, eh, Argos?” he said.
The dog, trotting beside his horse, looked up at him briefly.
For hours they continued on and up, stopping every now and then to listen for any sound of pursuit, and to steal a few precious minutes of rest. Where the slopes were steeper, Arden dismounted and led Night by the reins. The moon restored a cold memory of twilight among the trees. Its light was no friend of his tonight. Even such faint illumination could reveal him to the enemy once they were close enough. Arden wished the moon away – he needed to vanish utterly – but it did not go.
Of one thing he was sure. The dragon’s men would press on no matter what. Only their need not to lose his trail would limit their zeal. For troopers received a far richer reward for a Ranger’s head than an informer did. Renown came with it, and promotion, the choice of coveted assignments, and a lifetime of gold. To win this prize they relied on numbers and a relentless chase; and they accepted that the Ranger’s life would not come cheap. For no matter who dealt the Ranger his death blow, they all gained by it; and the fewer who lived to share the reward, the larger each survivor’s share would be. So Arden knew the dragon’s men were still behind him somewhere.
Several hours later he struck the path. The going was now easier for him, as it would be for the soldiers when they arrived. So now he pressed on the harder, still stopping to listen, but rarely to rest, and always climbing and climbing. They could rest when they reached the top.

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