Not moving, scarcely breathing, Arden and Argos crouched on the hillside waiting for the enemy they had just heard approaching. How many there were he did not yet know, but he had left six men, four horses, and two mountain wolves alive behind at the ford yesterday. All he surely knew now was that at least some of them were cautiously working their way down the hill towards them.
He doubted they were on horseback, since he had heard none of the sounds that horses make, no heavy footfall of hoof on dirt or stone, no snorting, no jingle of curb chain. Nor had he heard their riders’ spurs. Perhaps they had removed theirs as he had, to move more quickly and silently. The undergrowth was dense near the brook. And at close quarters that could make horses as much a hindrance as a help. But was it the whole party of six dismounted or only some of them? Until the river Arden’s horse and bow had been the great equalizers, allowing him to maneuver at speed and fight from a distance. Yet bow and horse were both lost to him yesterday at the river, though his quiver had already been empty by then.
There was at least one wolf. That he knew from the reaction of Argos, who always bared his teeth and snarled at the least scent of a wolf, as he did not at the scent of men, even the enemy. But while Argos’ nose might tell him if there was one wolf or two, that much he could not tell Arden.
However many of his enemy there were, they clearly knew he was somewhere nearby. Their slow stealth told the Ranger that. Though the trail he and the hound had left coming down the hill was now many hours old, the shifting breeze would have betrayed their presence to the wolves, whose senses were as keen as those of his wolfhound. Arden considered trying to work his way back up hill so he could get behind them and attack them from higher ground, but the hillside was uneven and covered with a full carpet of leaves. Not even he could move so silently through dry leaves that the wolves would not hear him. Several days ago, right after the rains, the leaves would have been wet enough and the brook loud enough to make that possible. But the level of the brook had already fallen and the hot first days of autumn had dried the leaves again. He could only wait for them, and hope that surprise and darkness would be his allies. Soon the night would be even darker, since some clouds had drifted out of the west with the sunset and were drawing near the bright moon.
His sword and dagger he had drawn some time ago, at the first hint of their coming. The weapons now lay crossed on the ground before his knees, his one hand by them, the other on Argos’ head. At times he heard the rustle of leaves and perhaps the sound of a low voice. Once, when the breeze was right he thought he could hear the snuffling of a wolf after a scent. Each time they were definitely closer, less than fifty yards away now. If slow and careful, as they had been thus far, they would cover that distance in less than twenty minutes, measured in a cautious pace or two followed by a long pause while their ears and eyes strained against the night and the wolves sniffed about.
Away behind him down the hill and across the valley, the farm dogs began barking again.
Once more Arden heard the exasperated shouting of the farmer and the slamming of the door. He paid it little heed. Argos’ ears twitched momentarily to listen, but quickly shifted back again, his attention scarcely distracted from the present threat. The clouds covered the moon and plunged the forest into an absolute gloom that would trouble even the eyes of an elf, if elves there still were in the world of the dragons.
Uphill a twig snapped. Arden’s mind came fully to bear on the sound. Not even a muttered curse followed. In the quiet of the night, only the breeze in the trees, the rattling of a few leaves on the ground, and the murmur of the brook could be heard. The troopers were being very cautious. And they were much closer now, twenty yards perhaps. Arden reached slowly down and grasped his weapons. Rising to one knee, he began to calm himself, to ready his body and mind for the sudden spring that would bring him upon his enemies. The chase would soon be over, for him or for them. Possibly for them all.
Again the farm dogs were barking, this time wildly, now joined by the neighing of horses and lowing of oxen. The animals sounded near panic. He heard the farmer shouting, too, but now other voices were added to his, shouting back. Something was very wrong at the farm. Then suddenly he saw it. A dull reddish glare tinged the woods before him, a glare that quickly grew brighter and paled to a lurid yellow. The light came from behind him. The dogs cried out one last time, in pain, and fell silent. Voices carried across the valley floor to him, voices strained with fear and anger, the farmer’s among them. Then it, too, was silenced. Arden glanced briefly over his shoulder, knowing that he dare not look for long, but knowing also that he must. There was fire in the fields, the year’s harvest burning bright and the flames spreading quickly far and wide. The pale grain that earlier in the evening waved in the silver moonlight, reminding him of long ago, now roiled with the yellow waves of a devouring flame. That, too, reminded him of long ago.
It was a trap of course, set to flush out a Ranger and exploit his desire to protect people from the tyranny of the dragon’s men. Arden had guessed wrong. The captain had indeed divided his men, after making just enough show of keeping them together during the pursuit to mislead him. The men above were meant to distract him and keep his attention long enough for the rest of the troopers to reach the valley, where, just as in Kinabra, they could create a situation to which Arden must respond. At the same time he could not simply turn his back on the enemy near him. For even if he could outrun the men, he could not also outrun the wolves. If he fell or if a wolf took him down, he would be finished.
Behind him in the valley voices were raised in screams of pain. No doubt it was the farmer’s family, made to suffer to force the Ranger’s hand. One choice lay before him.
“Go on, lad,” whispered Arden, loosing the hound who could find the enemy in an instant. Behind him rushed Arden, sword in his right hand and dagger in his left. Not twenty feet up the hill Argos collided head on with a wolf and the two fell to the ground in a snarling mass, rolling each other over and over. Almost too late Arden glimpsed the dark form of the second wolf rushing at him from the left. As it leaped high to knock him to the ground, he ducked and stabbed upward with his dagger. The blade found flesh, but the beast’s broad chest struck him in the shoulder as it passed over him, rolling him onto his side. The wolf was now behind him, but howling in pain. Before Arden could rise, there were footsteps quick above him. A shape loomed over him, dully red in the growing light of the burning fields. Arden slashed hard with his sword a foot above the ground, feeling his blade bite deep into bone and through it. The shadow fell screaming to the ground.
Arden rose and stepped over it. The light of the fire was bright enough now to show him a second man less than ten feet away. But he did not advance. He held his sword and dagger before him in a defensive position, waiting for the Ranger to attack him. Off to the right the battle between Argos and the wolf continued still, but Arden could not take his eyes off his opponent, who could swiftly change from defense to attack if his attention wavered. Arden could feel the man’s fear, left alone in the red twilight to face the Ranger who had already slain so many of his comrades, while the dog and the wolf snarled and bit and crashed through the underbrush beside them. Prize or no prize for the Ranger’s head, he had not bargained for this. Then in two quick passes of their blades, Arden’s sword had brought the man to his knees. In the flickering glow the Ranger looked at the troopers’ face as life left it. He was the rider Argos had mauled outside the inn.
A yelp from behind caused Arden to turn. Argos was losing. The wolf, large even for one of its kind, had Argos down on his back and he was weakly trying to fend the wolf’s jaws from his throat. Both glistened with blood.
Arden shouted and sprang at them. The wolf glanced sidelong at him, but could not turn from the hound without also exposing himself. With a thrust Arden skewered the wolf through the ribs, the impact knocking him clear of the hound. As the Ranger withdrew his blade, the wolf struggled to rise, only to have Arden leap across Argos and strike his head from his shoulders.
Returning to the dog, Arden quickly checked for any sign of another enemy. He heard the first wolf still whimpering, but there seemed nothing else. He fell on his knees beside Argos.
“Argos, my friend, oh not you,” he cried. Desperately afraid, he held the dog and checked him for wounds. There was much blood.
“Not you, too,” he whispered to him, more quietly now.
It was hard to tell in the scarce light of the flames, but his hands could find no major wounds, no sign of an artery or major vein severed. The hound was covered in blood, but how much was his and how much the wolf’s Arden could not tell. Though no wound he could find seemed mortal, without attention they might prove so. The worst wound was in his right front leg near the chest. He hastened to cut a strip from his cloak to bind it.
In the valley the screaming from the farm began once more, piercing even the roaring of the flames. He looked grimly down toward the flames, and the dog tried to rise. Arden held him gently down.
“No, my friend, stay,” he said to him in a low voice, then muttered to himself, “Again this choice, Arden,” as he weighed his feelings and the needs of others, their lives and their deaths. Quickly he tied off the strip of cloth around the dog’s leg. He bent and kissed the dog’s head.
“I must go to them. Without your help, though, I may not return. Be safe here.”
He then rose and checked the bodies of his enemies. Both dead. The first wolf still breathed. A short thrust of his dagger ended its suffering. With a last look at the dog, he sheathed his weapons and began to run down the hill through the trees, then through the burning fields towards the screaming that grew louder and more shrill the closer he came.
Several hundred yards from the foot of the hill Arden emerged from the flames to find the farmhouse, the soldiers, and their victims. A woman and two young girls, twelve or thirteen years old, were all tied to the fence of the paddock. Their heads hung down, their hair covering their faces. Before them on the ground lay a man face down in a dark, shining pool. Doubtless the farmer. Scattered around the farm yard were the carcasses of animals, dogs, horses, cattle. Behind all blazed the farmhouse and the barn, towering in fire and pouring smoking darkness into the sky.
Silhouetted against the burning house and standing between him and the paddock stood three cloaked figures. Two faced him. The third was gazing into the flames, his back turned. But six men had followed him from the ford yesterday. Two lay dead on the hillside by the brook. Three were here in front of Arden. Where was the last? The Ranger stepped forward, drawing his sword and dagger. The two facing him responded in kind. At this the third figure turned, his hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword. He walked forward until the light of a burning hay wagon illuminated his face. It was the dragon captain.
“Ah, Ranger, there you are,” he said calmly, his voice low and gentle, his tone even. “We were curious about when you would join us. I must admit my men were beginning to think you would not come, though perhaps ‘hope’ would be the better word.”
He paused and smiled a brief smile.
“It seems, however, that you were merely detained. Yet what has become of that astounding dog of yours?”
Arden made no answer. Slowly he looked from side to side, peering into the darkness for any sign of the last soldier, straining his ears for the slightest sound of movement. The horns he had heard two days ago came into his mind again as well as the additional wolf back at the pass. Though he had only seen six troopers behind him at the pass and the river, the captain had deceived him before now. Had the captain dared to divide his forces again because he had still more men than those the Ranger knew about? How many men did the captain have left – one or more – and where were they?
Arden took several steps forward to test his enemies’ reaction. The captain merely looked down. His men raised their weapons to the ready but made no other move. Only the smoke and the flames seemed to move. At length the captain looked up again, another smile passing swiftly across his face.
“I can see that you are wondering where my other man is lurking. He is out there, I do assure you, and will intervene if required.”
Arden still made no answer, but noted to himself that the captain had spoken of only one man. Was that the truth or more deception? And what did he mean by “if required?” As if there could be any other end to this than death. Arden saw one of the girls move. She raised her head enough for him to catch the glint of her eyes, and he thought he could hear her whisper to her mother. The Ranger raised his weapons and started towards the nearer of his foes. Still they did not move. Instead the captain extended his right hand towards Arden, palm out in token of peace.
“Ranger, there really is no need for all this violence to go on. As I recall, it was you who loosed the first shot and broke the peace. We had no quarrel with you. It was rather that smith back in Kinabra who gave us trouble.”
“Tell me better lies than that, captain. He is your brother.”
“So he is. I see you know something of me and my ties there. But the law should not bow before the ties of blood, should it? It did not, as you know, in that fallen Republic you Rangers claim to uphold. Nor were Rangers held above the law then.”
Arden remained silent.
“Still,” the captain continued when he received no answer, “I am willing to put an end to the bloodshed of the last two days, and equally willing to forego any vengeance. I am not unreasonable. All that has happened so far, and all this, “ he gestured at the destruction around them, “has been quite distasteful to me. But I must uphold the dragon’s law and ask you to submit to me peacefully. Do so and no further harm will come to these people here, who dared to claim that they had no knowledge of you. Surrender and their suffering will end. You have my word.”
The more reasonable the captain sounded, the more lawful and merciful he claimed to be, the hotter Arden’s wrath became.
“You will kill them all the same if you can,” cried Arden, “whether I yield to you or not.”
“Do you doubt my word, Ranger?”
“I have no doubt of the value of your word, captain,” Arden hissed. “Like the dragon, your master, you speak only to deceive and bewitch.”
The captain sighed and stretched out his arms in a helpless shrug.
“Very well then,” he said, drawing his sword and turning to his men. “Kill the women.”
Even before he finished the sentence, Arden was moving swiftly towards the man nearest him, who poised himself to meet his attack. At the same time the captain also stepped forward. For an instant Arden heard a whirring sound from the shadows to his left.
“A slinger,” he thought as the sling-stone struck the side of his head. His knees buckled and he fell. He struggled to rise, but his sight was dimming under the intense pain. His consciousness began to ebb as he collapsed flat on the ground, fighting still against the pain and disorientation. He must get up.
Then he heard a cry of pain, he thought, from the direction of the unseen slinger. He tried to force his eyes to focus, to hold on to the waking world. To little avail. The world was slipping away from him. But even as the darkness lapped over him, the Ranger saw a figure rush into the farmyard. To Arden he seemed to move more swiftly than anyone could move, running towards the captain and his men. A sword gleaming red in the reflected flames shone in his hands, held high above his head. Almost before they could turn to meet the stranger, he was upon the first of the troopers. As quick as the flash of his sword, he was past the first trooper, who crumpled to the ground behind him, and on to the second – the one the captain had ordered to kill the women – who died just as quickly. As if their swords had no substance, neither trooper had been able to parry a single stroke.
The stranger was now between the women and the captain, who advanced cautiously to meet him. With dreamlike speed the sword swung in a red arc towards the captain. Their blades rang together once, twice, the captain giving ground at each pass, reeling backwards from the force of his opponent’s blows, struggling to keep his footing and balance. At the third pass, a direct thrust almost too sudden to see passed through the captain’s guard as if it were not there. The captain fell sprawling on his back, grasping at his throat. Then he was still.
With a last effort Arden again strove to rise, but his limbs were weighed down by the tide of unconsciousness flooding over him. He saw the stranger turn and look his way. Fire and shadow were all around him, and his eyes shone with a pale blue light. With a flick of his wrist he shook the blood from his sword, and slid it smoothly back into its sheath. Arden opened his mouth to ask him who he was, but the question slipped with him into the dreamless dark.