03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 3.2

It was twilight when Arden opened his eyes again. The left side of his head burned and ached, but even lifting his hand to touch it made it hurt more. He was lying on his back in a cart, looking up at the sky, his vision too blurred to recognize the stars and tell morning from evening. For a few minutes he remained still, contending with his wound. The sky darkened. The watery stars grew brighter. It was evening, then. Suddenly he smelled smoke, and remembered the farm. Despite the pain seething in his head, Arden sat up and reached for his sword. Gone. Nor was his dagger at his belt.
He forced himself to look around. He was no longer at the farm. The wagon stood in a woodland clearing next to a path that disappeared almost at once into the night shadows of the trees. In the middle of the glade a man knelt beside a small fire, stirring something in a pot. His back was mostly turned to Arden, and between the shadow and the flame he was little more than a silhouette rimmed in light. But in his movements, in the way he leaned forward over the pot and in the slow circle his hand described with the spoon, there was calm and certainty.
Off to the right, out of easy reach and clearly visible in the firelight, lay the stranger’s sword, bow, and quiver. Arden had no doubt the man had placed them there deliberately, a sign that he meant no harm. There was something else, too, a little farther away, a roll of dark blue cloth about four feet long. Arden was wondering what it was when he caught sight of Argos staring at him across the fire, and heard his tail thumping the ground.
“Argos,” he exclaimed in a hoarse whisper of joy.
The hound slowly stood up and began limping his way over to him. Arden eased himself to the back of the cart and got out, shifting his eyes from the hound to the man and back again. The stranger never took his attention from the pot. Then the Ranger remembered him. This was the man who had slain the dragon’s men and saved his life, but Arden no more knew who he was than he had before.
He knelt and threw his arms around the dog, but his eyes still rested on the stranger by the fire.
“Oh,” Arden cried as the hound eagerly licked his face and made the side of his head ache. “Thank you, thank you,” he laughed and held the dog still closer, trying to keep the Argos’ nose from his wounds. “Thank you for your help.” The laughter also hurt.
The kneeling figure turned his head slightly, just enough to see the Ranger over his shoulder, then returned to the fire, but not before Arden caught the glimmer of his eyes.
“You’ll find your weapons under the seat of the cart,” the man said. “I did not wish you to wake up and start waving that sword about. You are safe here. I have tended your wounds while you slept. You should both be fully healed in a day or two.”
The stranger’s voice was rich and deep, like the shade of a broad-leafed tree in its prime, with boughs spread wide to catch the sun above, and lend shade to cool the earth below. It was a thoughtful voice, weary and sorrowful, but also resonant with a peace and strength that, again like a great tree, drew sustenance from roots buried far beneath the surface. Arden marveled at it. He had never known peace like that, not even in his glittering youth by the sea.
“What of the farmer’s family?” Arden asked.
“They will live,” the stranger replied. “I healed their wounds, and gave them much gold for that wagon. Their hearts only god can heal, if they choose to be healed.”
“But what of the troopers’ bodies? Others may come and – ”
“No one will find them.”
“ – ask questions,” Arden insisted on finishing.
“No one will find them.”
Arden paused and thought a moment. What the stranger said made no sense.
“But there were seven bodies, not counting the farm animals and the wolves. You’ll never hide all that blood from the wolves the soldiers will bring. They will smell it.”
“They will find nothing, because there will be nothing to find. The good farmer is buried among his ancestors out past the farmhouse. If anyone asks, his widow can say he died in the fire. Which will almost be true.”
“But how?” Arden asked, unhappy and incredulous.
“A minor enchantment, if you must know,” the stranger said with some impatience.
“Enchantment?” whispered Arden, half stunned, half scornful. “Enchantment?”
Then he fell silent. As a youth he had heard tell of such things, and when he was a boy he had believed in them. Sometimes, too, Arden’s Masters had spoken of enchantments as a skill a Ranger far advanced in the training of body and spirit might learn, but none had ever offered to teach them to him; and he had never known anyone to claim such knowledge for himself or seen anyone practice it. Arden did not believe in it at any rate. Who was this man to claim it was real and in his power?
Arden looked around him. His vision had improved as they were speaking. The stars were now sharp and clear in the night sky. He wondered what day it was. How long had he lain unconscious and how far from the farm were they? For one man to bury so many bodies, even in shallow graves, and tend the wounded was no small task. It took time.
He turned back to the stranger, who was still calmly tending the pot which hung over the fire. From time to time he tasted the contents. His back was still to Arden. Then on the other side of the fire, half in darkness, Arden saw a wolf. Unlike the mountain wolves, it was a very light gray, long of body and lean, but with the deep chest that bespoke an ability to run endlessly. Yet it was nevertheless a wolf. If the stranger saw it, he gave no sign. Nor did Argos. Arden rose with difficulty, his head smarting, and went to fetch his weapons.
“It’s all right,” the man said before Arden had taken two steps. “The wolf is with me. He is not your enemy.”
Arden stopped and stared at him. Then he cast a cold eye on the wolf, who sat down and calmly returned his gaze for a moment, but afterwards seemed more interested in what was cooking.
“I have never met a wolf that was my friend,” Arden said, still eying him.
The stranger rose at last, lifting the pot from the fire.
“So now you have,” he replied. “Would you like some stew? I think it’s ready. You must be quite hungry.”
“Yes, I am,” he answered, only now realizing that more than his head ached.
With a smile the man pulled a pair of plain wooden bowls and spoons from a leather pack, and beckoned to Arden to join him by the fire. As he drew near, the stranger handed him a bowl, already warm from the stew within it. Arden accepted it and thanked him. He took a seat halfway between the stranger and the wolf. After glancing hopefully from bowl to bowl to pot, the wolf sighed, curled himself into a resigned ball, and went to sleep. There was something in the wolf’s indifference to his suspicions that amused and mollified Arden, and he turned back to the stranger, whom the firelight now revealed to him.
His hair fell thick and dark about his shoulders. His features were fine, his eyes green. He wore a green cloak much like Arden’s. Beneath a leather jerkin was a dark green shirt that had the sheen of silk. A dagger hung at his belt. Supple brown boots met his breeches, also brown, just below the knee.
“I thought you said you were hungry,” the stranger said, glancing up from his bowl. “Eat while it’s still hot.”
“Sorry, I will. Thank you.”
Arden fell to eating. The first spoonfuls only sharpened his appetite for more of the stew, meat, potatoes, other vegetables and roots in a broth so thick it was almost gravy. A second bowl quickly followed, but all the while Arden studied the stranger with furtive glances from beneath his brows. The stranger kept his eyes to himself while he ate, pausing only to refill Arden’s bowl and pass him water. Even a third bowl did not sate the Ranger’s hunger, as the warm food strengthened and soothed him, but he stopped with three. At length he spoke.
“Thank you for the food. And for my life. I though I was dead when that stone hit me.”
“You very nearly were,” the other replied. “You should have found that fourth trooper and killed him first. Then you would have had a chance.”
“I know, but my mind was on the farmer’s family,” Arden said.
“Little good you could have done them dead.”
“True enough. May I ask who you are, and where you came from just then?”
“My name is Evénn.”
Arden smiled to hear the name. It was an old name, from tales of the distant past. Many songs were sung of an elf hero called Evénn, who had lived a thousand years ago and more, if he ever lived at all. Arden remembered loving those songs when he was a boy, but he had come to believe that they were merely stories, shadows of a world none living could know.
“Thank you, Evénn. I am in your debt. My name is Arden,” he said.
The stranger bowed his head to him, but said nothing more, as if he preferred to leave Arden’s second question unanswered. So Arden asked it again.
“And just how did you happen to be at the farmhouse?”
“I was following you,” Evénn replied after a moment’s thought.
“You were?” exclaimed the Ranger. “For how long?”
“Since you first encountered the dragon’s men at Kinabra five days ago.”
Arden cocked an eyebrow.
“Yes,” Evénn answered. “You were unconscious for three days. That was quite a blow you took. And to answer your next question, I was inside the tavern when you arrived. Had you come in, our meeting might have been less dramatic. Be that as it may, I watched through the window as your confrontation with the dragon’s men unfolded. With great interest. You are a fine bowman.”
“So why did you follow us?” Arden asked, ignoring the compliment.
“I wasn’t going to at first, at least not immediately. You seemed to have the situation well in hand. But then the squadron posted at the south end of the town rode through, followed by another a minute later. That tipped the scales against you. And there are too many of their kind in the world today, and not enough of yours. I have always been fond of Rangers. Long ago one of them tried to do me a good turn.”
“Then there was another squadron of troopers,” Arden nodded. “I thought so. I heard horn calls the first day, and on the second I saw a wolf I couldn’t account for. What became of them?”
“I dealt with them, the wolf and I, that is.”
“The horns were in response to you?”
“Yes. My horse, like yours, is faster than theirs,” Evénn continued. “I overtook them just north of the town. Their comrades were too busy chasing you to turn back and help them. That one wolf did escape us, however. After that I hung back, thinking you might defeat the rest on your own. I followed and waited to see what happened.”
“Your help would have been welcome sooner, you know, since you seem inclined to give it.”
“Are the quarrels of the Rangers and dragon’s men my affair?”
“You did say you were fond of Rangers.”
“True enough, but that fondness does not make your business mine.”
“And yet here you are.”
“I did not think your skill and courage should perish because like a fool you rushed into that farmstead. We all need our errors forgiven and corrected, or who could stand before god?”
Arden sat back and frowned.
“If there is one,” he muttered under his breath.
Evénn heard this, smiled to himself, and lowered his eyes to the fire. Raising his hand, he gestured to the wolf who rose and came to lie down beside him like a dog, like Argos next to Arden. The wolf looked up happily as Evénn stroked his fur. Arden glanced at Argos, who gave no sign that he found anything amiss. Before now the merest scent of a wolf had always caused Argos to bare his teeth and snarl. But not now.
“I have never seen this breed of wolf before,” Arden said.
“Argos and the wolf became acquainted while you slept. Besides, Argos had seen us before.”
“We came upon you sleeping in the moonlight up on the hill above the farm. Argos did not alert you to our presence,” Evénn added in answer to the question in Arden’s eyes, “because he knew we were friends. Dogs are wiser than we are in telling friend from foe. If your dog takes a dislike to someone, you should mind the dog. We remained close by. When the dragon’s men set fire to the house and fields, I left to investigate. The wolf remained behind. After you went charging off, he came and watched over your hound. They are fast friends now.”
“The more I know of you, the more in your debt I find myself to be,” Arden replied.
“It is nothing,” Evénn said with a wave of his hand. “You intervened to save the smith, though he did not deserve it. We did the same for you.”
“Though I did not deserve it?
“No, because you did. As I said, we all need forgiveness and the chance to learn better from our mistakes. This much I have learned. You may scoff, but it is so.”
“I had no wish to offend you.”
“You didn’t. I have some notion of how you feel. I’ve felt that way myself in the past. You doubt god – many do – small wonder in such dark days. Some think, wrongly, that there can be no god because god does not walk openly among us; some conclude that there can be no god because no god would allow the suffering of the world; some do the same because they have suffered terribly themselves. Still others doubt because god answered their prayers, as he usually does, with a firm ‘no’; and then there are those who doubt because god granted their prayers, and they came to regret getting what they asked for.
“All this reasoning, if you can call it that, is false. To decide that god does not exist because we cannot see him, because he does not behave as we think he should, because he does not grant us our wishes or protect us from ourselves, is not logical or reasonable, or wise for that matter. In the pride of our wisdom we are too often fools.”
Evénn’s last words trailed off into silence, and he stared into the fire, musing. Then suddenly he looked up.
“But enough of that,” he said with a grin. “I’ve gone on too long, haven’t I? It’s a bad habit that comes of years spent alone thinking. No doubt your head hurts enough as it is. Get some sleep. We must start early tomorrow.”
“Very well,” Arden agreed, “but let me ask you one last question.”
Evénn merely looked at him and waited.
“At the farm, you moved so quickly, and I have rarely seen such swordsmanship. Where –”
“My masters were excellent, and I have had much practice over the years. As for my speed, well, time can seem to flow quite strangely to someone who’s taken a sharp blow to the head. That’s all.”
Evénn’s voice was friendly, but there was a finality in his tone that told Arden he was done talking. Though hardly satisfied with this answer, Arden wrapped himself in his cloak and lay down a few feet from the fire, Argos beside him. Evénn meanwhile stood up and walked out beyond the firelight, where only the moon and stars shimmered. The wolf went with him. Arden closed his eyes.
But he did not sleep. His mind was too full of the events of recent days, of this stranger, and his unexpected appearance. Evénn was different. That much was certain. Arden had known many men, learned and unlearned, Rangers that wandered far and alone in the wilds like himself, and townsmen who never left the place of their birth, merchants and craftsmen, farmers and soldiers, but Evénn was unlike any of them.
Clearly he was practiced in war, so quick and skilled with his blade that the first two dragon’s men might as well have been unarmed. Even the captain had managed to parry only twice, with difficulty, driven backwards and clearly overmatched. And the dragon’s men spent too much time in training for them to have been mastered so easily by even a well trained swordsman. Arden was very good, and he might not have prevailed against the three of them together. Evénn had credited much practice and excellent swordmasters. That was all, he had said.
But that was hardly all.
There was also the swiftness and stealth of his movements. Arden doubted that Evénn’s speed was just an effect of the blow he had taken to his head, an illusion produced by his injury. Evénn had been upon the troopers almost before they could move. Somehow on the journey from Kinabra he had passed them by undetected, and then come very close to Arden in the woods without making the slightest sound, which was quite a feat on horseback over ground scattered with the leaves of early autumn. Ranger though he was, Arden did not think he could match those skills without many lifetimes of practice.
Much practice indeed.
Then there was the man himself. Evénn spoke as an elder of many winters would, with decades to reflect on the days and dreams of a long life, yet he appeared younger than Arden; and the world that held up a mirror for the reflections of old men was long dead. In speaking to Arden of doubt he had really spoken of faith, with the fierce assurance of one who discovered god, not in the fire or the whirlwind, but in pain. Nor was it just the man’s words. Arden had seen it in him from the first. In silence Evénn took comfort. But for Arden the world was too full of woe, and all the faith of his youth had burned away in dragon fire the day the Republic fell. That crucible reduced him to emptiness. Its fire did not purify. In silence he found only refuge.
“No wonder he troubles me,” he whispered to the night as he lay with his back to the fire.
And what of the spell Evénn had used, so he claimed, to deceive the senses of even the wolves, and mask the stench of all that blood? Arden had no faith in enchantments. Old men and older tales spoke of such power, but he had never witnessed it. Where was it when the nations of the earth fell? It was as absent as the god he had once believed in. Yet Evénn had been insistent, as confident as when he mentioned god. Arden sensed no deception in him. Whatever the truth was, Evénn believed his own words.
“Who is this man?” Arden thought.
It all made his head ache again. Was he deluded, or dreaming? Was he even now lying unconscious at the burning farm? He had heard stories of strange visions men near death had seen, and he had dreamed many strange dreams himself. But never like this. To be rescued from death by a warrior who appeared from nowhere, who healed his wounds, who spoke of god with the assurance of a prophet, and cast spells to protect them from their enemies, all this belonged in some great song of elder days. It was of course only fitting that this stranger’s name was Evénn, the hero of so many of those songs, a dragonslayer and a healer, but the days of song were over long ago, and the elves had all vanished or died when the war against the dragons was lost. After the Fall the Rangers had sent messengers across the sea to Elashandra, the city of the elves, several times. The few who returned told of a shattered city, ruled by the silver dragon, and occupied only by his men.
“All long ago,” murmured Arden and slept at last.
The next thing he knew, it was morning. Evénn was hitching one of the troopers’ horses to their wagon. Argos and the wolf were nowhere to be seen.

“Feeling better?” Evénn asked when Arden sat up. He gestured at a steaming bowl, which sat atop a rock a few feet from the smothered fire. “I saved you some stew.”
Arden took it and began to eat.
“Thank you. I am,” he answered. “My head hardly hurts.”
“By the end of the day it should not hurt at all, but you should probably drive the wagon while I ride. Your wound will heal more quickly that way.”
“Very well,” Arden acquiesced. He wanted to ride, but with the desire came a pang as he remembered that his horse was dead. Night had been his constant companion for nearly ten years. He was an old friend.
When Arden finished his breakfast, he rinsed the bowl and spoon with water he found waiting in the pot in which Evénn had cooked the stew. Without warning he found Evénn standing above him, hands held out for the bowl, pot and spoon. Arden gave them to him and watched Evénn return to his horse, where he packed them into his saddlebags. Strapped to the saddle was the roll of blue cloth he had noticed last night. In the morning light he could tell the fabric was silk. Something long and slender was wrapped inside, but Arden couldn’t guess what it was. He wondered if he should ask.
Arden stood up and walked over to the horse, while Evénn checked and tightened the cinch. He ran his hand along the horse’s sleek neck. It turned to look at him with large, dark eyes.
“This is quite an admirable horse,” Arden said. “He looks like he could run all day.”
“Much like yours, he can, fast as the wind and enduring as resentment.”
Arden laughed.
“Pity about your horse,” Evénn said. “He was rare. What was he called?”
“Night. And yours?”
“They would have gone well together then.”
Yes,” said Evénn, and they smiled together.
Arden looked across Moonglow’s withers at him. He and Evénn were of much the same height, though Evénn was slightly taller and not as broad across the shoulders.
“Where are we heading?” Arden asked.
“Well,” Evénn said, letting the word hang in the air between them, “you’ll be needing a new horse, won’t you, and a longbow and other gear as well. So, we are returning to your people.”
Arden stared at him in disbelief.
“I cannot bring you there. It is not permitted.”
“Perhaps not, but I can bring you. I know the way.”
“Only the Rangers know the way,” said Arden, alarmed and suspicious.
“Easy, my friend.” Evénn said. “The secrets of the Rangers are safe with me. Didn’t I tell you I have always been fond of them? Your stronghold lies deep in the forest of Tasar at the foot of the Mountain of the Stars, about twelve day’s journey south and east of here. It is reached through a deep gorge that opens into a hidden valley. It is quite lovely there in the springtime.”
“How can you know that? None but the Rangers and their kin have been to the Valley since the war began.”
“I have been there, though.”
“When?” Arden scoffed. “I would have seen you or heard of your coming.”
“It was some time ago.”
“When?” Arden insisted.
Evénn sighed. For a long moment he looked up at the sky with his hands on his hips. Then he looked Arden straight in the eye.
“Before you were born, Arden. Listen to me. I know the way to the Valley. I went out of my way to save you. You know this. If I were not to be trusted, you and all your kind would have perished already.”
Arden watched him closely, weighing his words. He could not contradict him.
“Trust comes hard to us now,” Arden said.
“That must change, or you will never be more than the ashes of what you were; and in the end ashes are always scattered by the winds. Is that what you desire, to vanish on the wind?”
“Then let’s be on our way.”
Evénn mounted Moonglow, and moved off at a quick walk. As he did, the wolf and hound emerged unexpectedly from the woods across the clearing. The wolf loped after Evénn, who never looked back. Joined by Argos, the Ranger walked back to the wagon and climbed up into the seat. The hound sprang up beside him. At the twitch of the reins on his back, the horse started the cart moving. Behind them followed the three other troopers’ horses, tethered to the rear of the wagon.
All Arden’s reflections of the night before flooded back into his mind as he drove along the road. Now this man, who looked younger than he did, claimed to be old enough to have visited the Valley of the Rangers before Arden had been born. Traditionally, not even the leaders of the Republic had known its location, and the few who had, seldom visited. But Evénn had described the way there accurately. Clearly he knew where it was.
So much about Evénn was extraordinary. Arden had no other word for it. Everything about him fit together and made sense, but led to a conclusion that was difficult to accept. For it all fit together in a way that suited someone, not from real life, at least not from Arden’s life, but from a heroic tale. It was as if Arden had woken from his wound to find himself inside a song that someone else was singing in a great hall lit by fire. But this was no dream. The only conclusion that Arden could draw about Evénn – that he was not a man at all – was the only one that made sense. Still he did not want to believe it.
For several hours Arden guided the wagon along the narrow path. It ran steadily east through the trees, climbing the low hills that rose and sank before them. His eyes were fixed on Evénn, who rode slowly ahead of him. He sat tall and erect in the saddle, his longbow slung across his shoulders. Still he did not look back. He left Arden to mull his questions and answers alone.
Over and over Arden rehearsed what he had seen, and what Evénn had told him since last night. He measured it all against what he remembered of the old tales. Finally he recalled a detail that would in his mind test the conclusion his mind had come to against his will. He quickened the pace of the horse and soon began to overtake the rider ahead of him. As he drew near, he called out his name.
Evénn stopped and turned.
“You have another question, I gather?”
“Yes,” Arden said.
“I hope you give as much thought to the answers as you do to the questions, my friend.”
“I have done little else today.”
Arden paused.
“Go on.”
“Evénn, tell me, where did you learn to heal as you do?”
Evénn smiled the distant smile of one recalling a cherished face that only memory could see.
“From my mother,” Evénn said quietly.
That was the answer Arden had expected. He took a deep breath before he went on.
“So, then, you’re an elf, aren’t you?”
“You are Evénn, the dragonslayer.”
“Yes, I am.”

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