03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 4.1

Four

They spent the next week mostly in silence, speaking only at need as they made their way southeast towards the Rangers’ stronghold. On the third day of their journey they stopped outside a small village for supplies. They also sold the wagon, which they no longer needed, since Arden and Argos were now fully recovered. Evénn had entered the village alone, in case there were dragon’s men about, looking for Arden or other Rangers. He had driven a hard bargain for the wagon at the small livery stable, from no need of money, but to allay suspicion through boldness. For a stranger too willing to sell a good wagon at a bad bargain might have something to hide.
The silence of the elf troubled Arden little in itself. The years he had chosen to spend alone in the wilds had made fellowship and conversation rare passages in his life. Usually all the talking he did was to himself, or to Argos and Night; and they did not answer in words. It was only when he visited the Rangers’ stronghold that he knew anything of the free company of others, but with time such visits by him had become quite uncommon. In the last ten years he returned to the Valley only when duty or the Masters summoned him there. On the whole Arden preferred solitude and the exile of his thoughts, his memories, and his bitterness.
When he ventured into a town, he stayed briefly and said little. Though his garb and wolfhound revealed him as a Ranger to all, he revealed himself willingly to none. Some, like the innkeeper at Kinabra, and the other men and women old enough to remember the days before the dragons, guessed much of the life of this infrequent visitor from his countenance and spare words. They knew that hunted men, especially outlaws like the Rangers in these evil days, still yearned for the comfort of comrades. From a distance they offered what they could.
Arden did not deceive himself. He longed for friendship like the rest. Within him was a conflict he could never resolve. He wished to know others as he once had, but feared that gratifying this desire would leave him still more alone when those others also fell. His loneliness bred only loneliness.
So Evénn’s company on the road was as welcome to Arden as his silence. The quiet hours and miles left him to his thoughts. All the once held beliefs of his youth rose from the grave of Narinen to challenge the certainties that had taken their place. With the arrival of Evénn hope beckoned – for if the dragonslayer still lived, what more could be possible – but Arden defied hope. He had once believed in all that Evénn himself professed, and all that his survival into the withered, riven world of the dragons suggested. Arden rejected that world utterly. Suffering had so deformed his heart that even the appearance of a hero out of legend, who had defeated this same evil long ago, could not restore him. Years of doubt and grief, of solitary regret, were not forgotten in a few hours or days.
Evénn had said of the women of the farm that god could heal the hearts of those who wished healing. Yet for thirty years the Rangers had fought a losing battle against a stronger foe, whose numbers were always renewed while the Rangers dwindled through age, accident, and endless war. Theirs was a long defeat, devoid of final hope. They had become ashes waiting only for a last wind to scatter them into nothingness. What heart without hope could wish for healing? And what soul without faith could ask for it?
The little Evénn said in the first week touched on the craft of healing. He had discovered sores beneath the saddles of the troopers’ badly tended horses, and each day he spent some time treating them. He insisted that Arden help. As they worked, Evénn spoke of the gathering and preparation of the necessary herbs, a good store of which he kept in his saddle bags. He also spoke of the herbs’ history and the efficacy of each for various ills, explaining how to apply them and what prayers and spells to use. Beneath the elf’s skilled hands the horses, which had been skittish and unfriendly at first, quickly improved and took a great liking to Evénn. Within a few days they were following him like so many happy dogs at their master’s heels.
“Learning something of this craft will be useful to you,” Evénn often said to Arden during the week. “It is the same craft that healed you and your dog.”
By the ninth day the woods had so encroached on the path that they could no longer ride abreast, or even see Argos and the wolf, who rustled along beneath the dense thickets on either side. Several times the path seemed to end in a wall of dark green leaves. Yet Evénn pushed through without hesitation, never losing the almost invisible trail, which Arden thought was known only to Rangers. Even in the peaceful days before the Fall, few travelers ventured this deep into the woods, so remote from the nearest dwelling of men – the village where Evénn had sold the wagon, now six days’ journey behind them.
That evening Arden and Evénn rested beside their campfire. Above them to the east loomed the Gray Mountains, beyond which lay the last stronghold of the Rangers. All but the highest peaks, already touched with a blaze of snow, were doused in shadow. As Arden sat contemplating those summits and the ascent they would begin towards them the next morning, he listened to Argos and the wolf playing together. They leaped and rolled in the firelight, casting sudden flashes of shadow on the surrounding trees.
In the last week the two of them had become inseparable. They vanished into the gloom of the forest, to reappear again hours later, a pair of unlikely friends, returning shoulder to shoulder from adventures all their own that Arden and Evénn would never know. Not long ago Arden could never have imagined such a friendship, or that he would find himself gazing in admiration at the wolf’s long legged grace, as he did this evening. The wolf was beautiful.
“What is the wolf’s name?” Arden asked in the middle of their meal.
Evénn, seated across the fire from Arden as usual, looked over his shoulder at the wolf and the hound, who ceased their play at once and stared back, knowing that they were being talked about. Evénn turned back to Arden with a smile.
“I don’t know. He’s never told me.”
“Don’t tell me he speaks to you?” Arden asked incredulously.
“No, no,” Evénn replied, gently laughing, “but you know how it is with beasts sometimes. When you get them, you study them and consider what to call them. Then suddenly you know, as if somehow they have told you. That has never happened with him. Mostly I just call him ‘wolf’ and he doesn’t seem to mind.”
“I have never seen a wolf of his kind before. Where did you find him?
“Several years ago on a journey I took, far to the north where the snow falls all the year round, in the place you call the Fields of Winter, I came upon him and his pack one icy morning when the sky was as clear and blue as when the world was young. He was barely more than a cub then, but he walked out from the pack towards me, and has followed me since. He came, though I did not call him. He chose me.”
“What brought you to the lands of snow?” Arden asked. His people rarely went there. “Were you searching for something?”
“I am often searching for something. Sometimes I find it and sometimes it finds me. I don’t always know what it is until I see it, however.”
“I see,” Arden said with a grave nod of his head. “I had always heard that the elves spoke in riddles. Now I know it is true.”
“That’s only because you fail to grasp what we are saying.”
“There you go again.”
Evénn laughed aloud – deeply, joyfully, sadly – and the firelight flashed in his green eyes as he threw his head back in pleasure. Arden had not heard him laugh so heartily before. Suddenly he recalled a lesson that one of his old Masters had taught him, that laughter can reveal all of a man’s life in an instant. Arden asked himself how long Evénn must have lived to have a laugh like that.
“I have also heard,” he said, “that a man’s laugh tells much about him.”
“That is so,” Evénn answered with an sly grin, “and even more so with elves.”
Now it was Arden who laughed.
“Your laughter is bitter, my friend,” Evénn stated flatly.
Arden stopped suddenly.
“I have much to be bitter about,” he replied.
“You do,” said Evénn. “But the world as it is is not your doing.”
“True, but I must suffer the world as it is. What was is beyond recovery.”
“That is always so, with or without the dragons, but we may still change what will be, for both our peoples.”
“I don’t see how.”
“If you cannot imagine it, then you will never know.”
They resumed eating. Between mouthfuls Arden paused, wishing to ask Evénn what he meant, but the habit of despair sealed his lips. He could not ask; he would not hope. The elf said nothing. Arden changed the subject.
“When you mentioned your journey to the north, you said the sky was as blue and clear as when the world was young. Just how old are you?”
Evénn laughed that laugh again. “Well, I am not quite as old as that. Not enough to remember the youth of the world. That was just a manner of speaking. I remember a younger world, but not a young one.”
“So what was it like when the world was younger?”
“You grew up by the sea, did you not? I can hear the accents of the eastern ocean in your voice.”
“Yes.”
“Well, then you know the great tempests that come from the sea in late summer?”
“Yes, of course.”
“How does the world seem the day after one of those storms?” Evénn asked.
“As if the wind and rain had scoured it clean. The sky is more blue, the trees more green, the flowers more brilliant.”
“As if the world were new again?”
“Precisely.”
“That is how the world was long ago,” Evénn said. “Each dawn could have been the first, and each night the stars shone as if newly kindled by god. The world was as if just imagined. It was like the first love of youth fondly remembered in later years.”
Arden winced at that and Evénn saw it, but Arden pressed on.
“So, what happened? Why is it no longer that way?”
“Because everything in the world of elves and men grows and changes, Arden. Some things fade, but others replace them. At least it often seems that way to us.”
“The elves do not grow old.”
“Not in body, as men do, but we do grow old in heart sometimes, precisely as men do. For us it takes much longer. Men seldom live long enough to notice any changes in us, but we do change. Memory and hope, and longing for the things we have loved and lost, can mislead us, just as they do men. We, too, can mistake the differences we see, or think we see, for signs of decline. In lives as long as ours, with memories as long as ours, that can lead to terrible temptation.”
“To what?”
“To attempt to resurrect the world as we remember it, because we think our memories are true.”
“But how?” Arden said, his voice a doubtful whisper.
“There are ways of power to accomplish such ends, Arden, but they are perilous beyond measure. They are better left untried. Succeed or fail, the cost of them is too dear,” Evénn replied sternly. For in Arden’s eye he had caught a strange and eager glimmer he did not like. He had seen that light before, in other eyes. “It is too dear,” he warned.
Arden withdrew his gaze, and lowered his eyes to the fire.
“So how old are you, Evénn?” he asked, when he raised them again.
“I am nearly five thousand years old.”
With these words, the crushing weight of time came down upon Arden. For he could only imagine so much time in the pain of his own life. If he were an elf, he thought, he would have to bear that burden alone through uncounted years, until the ending of the world. What followed next was only worse. For he thought of how long he might have known joy, had he been an elf and the dragons never come. With that much time he might have lived to win Sorrow for his own in the end.
Evénn saw all this in Arden’s eyes, saw it overwhelming him – he had seen this look before, too – and he recalled how Arden had flinched only a few minutes ago.
“I can guess some of what you are feeling,” he said sympathetically. “Mortals always think of their sorrow as never ending, and that the weight of the years must be unsupportable. They gasp at the thought of it, and gasp again when they consider the brighter possibilities of time. But it is not like that. Not quite. There is enduring pain, to be sure, and long joy, but there is also a point of balance between the two that one can find, whether elf or man.
“In a life that spans the life of the earth, we have more chances to attain that balance, but also more to lose it because there is so much more to grieve for. I have seen thousands of your kind die. To miss one you love for a generation seems long to you, and for you it is; but in five thousand years of the sun I have buried countless mortal friends, countless dogs, countless horses – all of whom I loved as you love Argos, and Night, and others – and the memory of them never leaves me.
“And though by nature the elves are deathless, chance and war can kill us, too. To lose those you have loved for a thousand years, and to mourn them for a thousand more – I lost my dearest blood in the first war with the dragons; and when they returned I lost my father and my brother as well. The dragons’ wrath fell hardest on us because we led the fight against them the last time. Now we are almost gone. Those who remain are scattered and hidden. Only a few walk beneath the open sky.”
“Like you?” Arden asked, with a look that said he was thinking of something else.
“Like me. They walk abroad in search of hope.”
“Hope!” Arden scoffed. “There is no hope.”
“If so, then we are all lost, your kind and mine. But if we do not search for it, then we do not deserve to survive.”
“I, too, lost my father and brother in the great war. My brother was with you across the sea. My father died in the fall of our city. They did not deserve that.”
“I am sure they did not. Your people fought bravely beside us that day at Elashandra, but in vain. Together we were a mighty force, but courage and strength were not enough. The dragons and their men were too many and too powerful. Our courage was overwhelmed. No tears could mourn the blood shed that day. ”
“But dragons have been defeated before if the songs are true,” said Arden, but Evénn could see he was still thinking.
“The songs are true, but, if you recall them, you will also remember that the dragons did not fight together then. That was their error, a mistake they did not repeat.”
“Wait,” Arden said slowly, and held up his hand. “You speak as if they are the same dragons.”
“They are.”
But you killed them.”
“Yes.”
Without a word, Arden leaned forward. His narrowed eyes demanded an explanation.
“The dragons are not like us, Arden, creatures of flesh, blood, and bone, but eternal spirits of great power, who under certain conditions can cloak their majesty in flesh, and enter our world in the guise in which we see them. The bodies they put on, however, are mortal. So they can be slain, with great difficulty, as you know from the songs. Yet the dragons themselves do not die. They merely return to the world of spirits whence they came.
“In the first war, as I said, they did not act in concert; and so with the help of many others we were able to slay them one by one. When they returned thirty years ago they had profited by their mistakes – even evil can do so – and joined together to subdue us to their will, or destroy those who would not submit. That much power gathered in one place, and aided by men they had seduced or enslaved, was too much for the nations of elves and men. Thus we were defeated, and the night of our affliction began.”
“You say they are spirits, but I do not remember learning that.”
“No, that was concealed, lest the misguided or evil later seek to bring them back and benefit from standing by their side.”
“Why would god permit such evil spirits to enter the world?”
“Oh, now you believe in god? Or, do you ask,” Evénn smiled, “merely to reinforce your doubts because there can be no satisfactory answer?”
“We could do without your wit right now, Evénn,” Arden said sharply, stung by the elf’s reproof. “This is too serious for joking. My family and yours, my people and yours have been destroyed by these monsters, and despite what you say of hope and the future and deserving to survive, I see no remedy for this ill.”
“Very well, I shall give you a more serious answer. But forgive my wit. You reminded me of myself. Do you think you’re the only one to taste bitterness and doubt?” Evénn said. His smile faded, and he began again. “Why would god allow such evil? I don’t know. Nor do I know why god would allow plagues and earthquakes. He has never answered me that. But for this world to be ours, we must be free to face its troubles and the consequences of our actions. If god intervened – ”
“Oh, enough of god already, and your musings,” said Arden. His voice now was jagged with anger. “You were right the other night. You do go on, like a scholar in his study, but that world is dead, Evénn, and the boys and girls who sat at the feet of scholars and debated such questions are dead. Where was god when they died? Where has he been the last thirty years? The consequences of our actions? How can the dragons be the consequence of our actions? I ask you, where was god?”
“Where he has always been.”
“And enough of your elvish answers. Riddles and reflections are not what we need. We need to kill the dragons or die trying,” Arden shouted.
He jumped up and stalked off into the forest, followed by Argos.
Evénn sat with his head bowed. He did not watch them go, though the wolf peered into the gloom until even he lost sight of them. Then, with a plaintive moan, he dropped his head into Evénn’s lap.
“It’s all right, lad,” the elf said, lovingly stroking his face. “That took longer than I thought, but that’s a good thing. Now we’ll see about the rest.”
Evénn turned his head slightly, tucking his chin into his shoulder as if listening, but aside from the crackling of the fire there was nothing to hear for a long time. At last he sighed.
“Seek god first in small things, my friend,” he said to the man who was not there.
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