03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 2.2

At first light, as he drew near the pass and the shapes of the hills around him gradually emerged from the night, Arden chose the place where he would await the enemy. The path was narrow here, and bordered on the east by a steep, uphill slope. Here old pines had dug their roots down into cracks riven into the rocky mountainside by upheavals long past. Water trickled in their depths. On the west was an even longer and more arduous slope. Not far ahead the road switched back south, bending around a huge boulder, and ascended quickly to the turn that led into the pass. Arden gazed up at that last stretch of road, and saw above him a large rock behind which he could take shelter and shoot down at the dragon’s men.
He nodded to himself and rode up as far as the foot of the pass, where he tethered his horse to an ancient, withered bush that grew in a circle at the last bend in the road. Returning, he sat down on the stone he had spied from below to look over the ground once more. From here he could command the lower road, only about thirty precipitous yards below him, for over a hundred yards until it went out of sight around the boulder. There would be time for perhaps a half dozen shots before he had to fall back. Then the race down to the river would begin.
As he rested and ate, sharing his food with the hound lying beside him, Arden checked his bow and counted the arrows in his quiver, examining each one carefully, smoothing its feathers. Ten remained. But there were nine or ten men behind him and two wolves. Even ten true shots could not kill them all. At least they would have to keep to the road. The hillside was quite steep, with little cover, and thick with old needles that dropped from the pines near the top and made footing unsure. That was something. For a moment Arden pondered the horn calls again. Were there other troopers that he did not know of? He shrugged. He still had only ten arrows.
He ran the feathers of the last arrow through his fingers and considered the deaths tallied by the arrows gone from his quiver. He thought of the ghosts that would haunt him. More and more ghosts as his days grew long. They should not haunt him, he told himself again. For, though the dragon’s men of the first years had mostly come from across the sea, now nearly all were men of Narinen. From cruelty, a hunger for power, or fear, they betrayed their own. They chose to be the greater slaves of the tyrant, winning their bread by destroying and humiliating the people from whom they were born. For this the troopers justly lost their lives. Yet within Arden there was now a place, one no longer buried as deeply as it had once been, where he regretted their deaths.
In his youth after the Fall, he had burned with a hatred that rejoiced in their deaths and took pleasure in slaying them. His thoughts were of blood, his deeds rash, his lust for vengeance unsated. More than once in those days his hatred had nearly cost him his life. His eyes mirrored a grief and rage beyond measure; and many a man took a step backward or glanced away when he saw them. But in the run of years a bitter weariness of this endless war smothered the flames within him. No victory in patience, no healing in slaughter. It came to him one day that, much against his will, the contempt he felt for those he hated had become pity; and his hatred of all but the dragons had grown cold.
And so their ghosts haunted him. They were men, too. They had wives, children, and parents who waited, not knowing that those they loved had lost the day of their homecoming. They would not return. Wives, children, and parents who even now slept and dreamed of them, or gazed out a window at this morning’s twilight and wondered when their men were coming home to them. Never.
This was the end of one hard tale, and the beginning of another more bitter. This was the dragon’s harvest, sown first at his coming, reaped alike by everyone, a harvest of sorrow that Arden forgot only in the timeless press of battle. Yet in that moment of necessity the crop was sown again.
“These were not supposed to be our lives, Argos,” he sighed as he stroked the dog’s head. “They have no more hope than we do.”

The rising sun found the two of them sitting side by side in the dust of the upper road. Its first rays quickly paled into the clean, golden light of an autumn morning. There had been no sign of the dragon’s men, leaving Arden with no idea of how far behind him they were. Were they hanging back in the hope that he would foolishly think he had escaped, and so lead them to Rangers’ hidden fortress? That tactic was not unheard of, but at the thought of it a sudden, sharp laugh burst from within Arden. Looking up in surprise, Argos shuffled a dubious tail upon the ground.
“They’ll grow old before we lead them home, lad,” Arden said with a wry smile, and rested his hand on Argos’ shoulders. His fingers grasped the thick, wiry coat, feeling the strength concealed beneath it. With a sigh and a final glance Argos lowered his head, and shut his eyes.
Three summers past and three long winters gone by Arden had ridden into the Valley of the Rangers with his apprentice, staying only long enough to report to the Masters, as was required, and declare her training ended. For a few he spared a greeting or a farewell, but most he answered curtly, with a nod and a not unfriendly look. By the time his apprentice left the Masters a half hour later, Arden was already gone. She did not need to ask where he was. He chose the wild seclusion of mountain and forest, and the limitless vistas of his memory. He did not see why he should ever turn back.
Now far away from that hidden fortress Arden and Argos slept by the roadside – the Ranger with his back against the stone, out of sight of the lower road, the hound curled into a tight ball – while the sun mounted the sky above them. The morning wore away. Noon was nearly at hand when Argos growled softly. In an instant Arden was awake and peering around the stone. No one was in sight yet. Getting to his knees, Arden drew out half his arrows and thrust them into the hard earth. He loosened his sword and dagger, though he did not expect the enemy to get that close.
He now made a decision he did not like. With only ten arrows, he could not risk an empty quiver and a half a dozen or more mounted men on his trail. Arden would begin killing their horses. If he could split the dragon’s men into two groups, one mounted, the other on foot, he stood a better chance against them. Even if some riders took their unhorsed comrades behind them, that would also serve him by slowing them all down, or forcing them to divide into two parties, the one swift, the other slow.
Down below a wolf trotted out of the trees to his left and moved cautiously along the road. He was favoring one of his hind legs. Two horsemen quickly followed. Arden waited for the rest of the party to come into the open. There were ten men and three wolves.
“Three wolves? So there is another squad somewhere,” Arden reflected, “but why is one of the wolves limping?”
When they were almost directly beneath him, the Ranger drew his bow. His arrow pierced the flank of the last horse in the line. It reared and threw its rider, then fell screaming to its knees. The horses directly ahead were startled and surged forward. Their riders struggled to control them, while the others turned to see what had happened. Arden heard a voice shouting an order. The two lead riders at once broke into a gallop, making for the turn ahead. The first wolf ran with them. Arden did not have long before they flanked him.
He loosed his second shot at a chestnut mare in the middle of the party and struck her in the neck. As the horse went down, the rider jumped clear. It was the captain. Arden’s third shot hit the haunch of another chestnut, already spooked, further back in the column. The wounded horse veered wildly into the one beside it. Both went off the western edge of the road, and with their riders vanished over the brink of the hill.
Arden now swung to his right to face the lead riders. They had rounded the boulder at the bend in the road and were galloping towards him, one sword in hand, the other drawing his bow. The Ranger’s fourth arrow killed the bowman; his fifth unhorsed the swordsman who flew forward over his dying mount’s head. He hit the ground face down, his sword flying from his grip. As the bowman’s horse raced by, Arden snatched at the quiver hanging from his saddle. His fingers caught the strap for a moment, but the horse was moving too fast for him to hold on. With a clatter of arrows the quiver landed several yards up the road. Arden ran out and tried to reach it, but arrows from the road below drove him back. He turned and dived behind the rock for cover.
Down the road, Argos dispatched the wolf that had come limping up the road at a trot behind the horsemen. The fallen swordsman was on his hands and knees, groggy from the impact, spitting dirt, and fumbling for his sword. Reaching it, he got to one knee.
“Better you had stayed down,” said Arden as he loosed his sixth arrow into the man’s chest. Again the trooper dropped his sword, only to grasp the arrow in his chest with both hands. Looking up, his eyes met Arden’s briefly before he died.
On the road below, three of the dragon’s men steadily plied their bows, striving to keep the Ranger pinned down behind the boulder, while two horsemen raced for the turn to flank him again. Their captain stood boldly in the open, directing his men’s archery, almost daring Arden to reveal himself by trying a shot at him.
“Time to go,” Arden thought and crawled for the far side of the road. There he rose and ran for his horse, keeping low to give the enemy little to aim at. Momentarily he swerved back towards the center of the road to pick up the trooper’s quiver, but a shot from below, well aimed or lucky, struck it from his hand. With arrows singing past him in the air and more riders rounding the turn behind him, it was too dangerous to turn back and try again.
“Come on, dog,” he shouted as he jumped onto his horse’s back. Argos came running, overtaking him before Night reached full speed. He rode up the last stretch of road for the gap at the top, the lead riders and their wolves only forty yards behind him. He could hear the captain below shouting commands to his other men to mount and follow.
In the middle of the pass, Arden reined in his horse and turned, drawing and loosing another arrow in a swift, fluid motion. Another mount fell from beneath its rider. Just then a horn sounded. The second rider suddenly veered, barely eluding Arden’s next shot, and retreated behind a huge old pine. The wolves stopped beside the fallen rider, who lay unmoving on the ground. The captain, it seemed, would not allow his forces to be divided again.
Arden urged Night through the pass. He had to hurry. Though further down the eastern face of the hills was not as steep as on the west, up near the pass the slopes between the winding loops of road were still forbidding. There was no safe way off the road for over a mile. The dragon’s men would soon have their turn at shooting down at him.
Several turns further on he slowed Night just long enough to take a good look back up the hillside. He could see the enemy – two men mounted singly and two double – coming down from the pass. That was a very long shot for them at a fast moving target. Arden doubted they could make it, but they had arrows to spare, far more than the two that rattled against each other in his quiver. So they might try a long shot and hope their luck would serve. In their place he would do no less.
As if reading Arden’s mind, the two nearest troopers raised their bows. Arden set his spurs to Night and moved on. From time to time an arrow or two fell near him, never too close, but never far enough away to be disregarded. He heard them cut through the air, to strike the dirt of the road with a thud, or fix themselves in a tree with a sharp, quivering sound. Finally Arden left the road and found cover beneath the trees. Before long the slopes grew gentler, and he rode faster. He pushed his horse as hard as he dared, knowing his pursuers would do the same. Once they reached the bottom of the valley they would do all they could to catch him on this side of the river.
For centuries a bridge had stood above the ford. The stonewrights of the Republic had built it to unite the lands on either side. Arden remembered it well from his early days here in the west, when he was a young apprentice himself on his first journey with his master. Hewn of stone with pillars set deep in the river bed and on either shore, the bridge spanned the water in two leaping arches of rare grace. All that now survived was the foundation of the central pillar, visible only in the heat of summer when the water was low. The rest had been torn down stone by stone. The moss grown blocks lay scattered along the banks, or jutted from the shallows nearby.
But the ford remained. The crossing was narrow, with deep water above and below and a stiff current, but for most of the year it could be made without too much trouble. Only in the early spring, when the river swelled with melting snow, was it impassable; some years the fall rains also drowned the ford completely, but autumn was only in its first days now, and the rains had not been heavy so far.
Down the hills dusted with falling leaves Arden rode for the river and the ford. He had miles to go yet, with pursuit not far behind him and two arrows to keep them at bay. If his horse threw a shoe, or came up lame, it would cost him his head. So he made haste slowly across the uneven, pathless slopes, uncertain how this race would end. Arden had hoped to do the enemy more harm this morning, but they had been more cautious today than yesterday. Clearly the dragon captain was no fool.
After an hour the heights where the pine and fir grew gave way to the lower slopes crowded with oak and maple. Their leaves, now golden, now red, danced around him in the cool air. At times Arden glimpsed the sparkle of the river miles ahead. Another hour returned him to the lowlands, and at last to the verge of the forest, where he stopped to get his bearings. He gazed out across the valley’s green bottom to the riverbank, and at the abrupt, stony ridge jutting up on the far side. Lines of alder and plane trees traced the course of the many streams that fled down from the hills to nourish the river.
Several hundred yards to the south the road emerged from the woods and curved towards the site of the old bridge directly east of him. Beside the road in the middle of the plain was a solitary cabin, which had stood empty far longer than the twenty five years Arden had known it. Every year less of it survived. Another hole appeared in the roof. A bit more wall crumbled away. What had been windows and doorways were now the gaping wounds of time. Beyond the cabin Arden could see the trees that marked the western bank of the ford a little more than a mile away. Off to his left a herd of deer grazed. They seemed to be enjoying the sun. High above them an eagle glided towards the river. For a minute or two Arden watched and listened, then shook the reins and nudged his horse to a quick trot.
Two arrows shrieked past from his right. A third glanced high off the shoulders of Argos, who yelped and sprang forward, blood glistening in his fur. Arden shouted to his horse and hound. Night answered with a burst of speed, and at a dead run they raced across the plain, south and east in a direct line for the ford. Argos was running full out beside them. Despite the blood, the wound across his shoulders was not deep. His long stride and speed were undiminished.
Somehow the dragon’s men had come down to the south of him and reached the edge of the woods almost as he did. That placed them slightly closer to the ford than he was. They burst from the forest spread out in a line thirty yards across, the better to herd him, the better to shoot him down. And the horsemen held their line as the chase wore on, at a distance from each other but still abreast. On the farthest horse he saw the dragon captain. Behind the riders two more troopers came running from the forest on foot. All the mounted men carried bows.
Soon their arrows filled the air, compelling Arden to push Night to the very limits of his strength and agility. By slight, almost constant, shifts in direction at full speed he sought to defeat their aim, but twice he felt the tug of an arrow snatching at him when it passed through the green cloak that flowed behind him. Once, as he was about to dart behind the cabin, he rose in his stirrups to shoot back at them. He missed his mark, he saw a moment later. All four riders appeared behind him again, flowing around the cabin as inevitably as the years that had left it behind.
But Night proved the swifter, thanks not only to that morning’s rest, but to his great heart and long training. For over a thousand years, back to the days before the Republic began and before the first dragons appeared, the horses of the Rangers had been bred for speed and endurance; and their five years of training before ever a Ranger received one as his mount, only increased the swiftness and stamina of their nature. Countless Rangers had they saved in those centuries, countless messages carried to win a war or save a peace.
In the last quarter mile between the cabin and the river Night drew steadily away, and Argos kept pace at the bay’s side, devouring the earth with his long legged stride. Over fifty yards lay between them and the dragon’s men as they approached the riverbank. The tall grass gave way to a steep shore of rock and mud. The ford was just below. Arden glanced back. In his right hand was his bow; in his left he held the reins and his last arrow, which he would spend as he entered the river, trying his luck before the water ruined his bowstring. That arrow he meant for the captain.
The water splashed around his horse’s knees, and the hound plunged in with a leap. Dropping the reins, Arden turned and loosed his arrow. The captain swerved aside, grinning at the Ranger as he rode. Water now mounted to Night’s breast and shoulders. It came foaming over his back. The current thrust them sideways towards the deeper water, but the horse kept his footing and forced his way ahead. Arden bent low beside his horse’s neck and grabbed Argos by the scruff to keep the river from sweeping him away.
Over his shoulder Arden saw the dragon’s men riding down to the water’s edge, raising their bows. Yet he was already in the deepest part of the ford. In a few seconds Night would reach the slope leading up to the farther shore. Arden strained to hear the sharp twang of their bowstrings, but the river was too loud. Night began to climb. Not two inches from where Arden’s cheek was pressed against the horse’s neck, the shaft of an arrow appeared, its point buried deep in the flesh. The horse screamed and reared, wrenching Argos from Arden’s grasp. Night toppled sideways into the deeper water.
As the river closed over him, Arden kicked free of his stirrups. Looking up through the green water, he saw the sun gleaming above, but the weight of his gear dragged him down into the silent twilight of the river bottom. He rolled over and began to swim. His lungs ached. The current drove him. Blurred green shapes, boulders, seemed to speed past, but he knew it was he who was moving. One loomed up and struck him hard, forcing the air from his lungs. He fought his way upwards. The light above grew brighter so slowly.
Then he broke the surface, gasping for air, and struck out for the shore. For a moment Arden lay flat on the eastern bank, staring at the sky, gulping air into his lungs. He waited for the hiss and pain of an arrow, but nothing happened. All he could hear was the river. Slowly he crawled behind some rocks. His side hurt. There was no sign of horse or hound. Nor did he see the dragon’s men. The current had carried him much further than he thought.
Arden rose and turned to the steep, rocky slope. As he began to scramble upward, Argos dashed up and jabbed his nose in Arden’s face. With a laugh, the Ranger threw an arm around him and hugged him to his side.
“Glad to see you, too,” he smiled, and together they began the long ascent of the ridge. Behind him Arden thought he heard a voice shouting above the din of the water, but he did not look back.

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