03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 5.1

Five

Far taller than the hills Arden had climbed in his flight from the dragons’ men, the wide, granite shoulders and soaring peaks of the Gray Mountains rose high and sharp against the blue of the eastern sky. Up above the hardiest of the dark pines, beyond bare, hard slopes of stone, was the pass towards which Arden and Evénn were climbing. With luck, just before nightfall of the second day they would stand in the pass itself, and look back on the sun as it vanished into the west. Ahead of them to the east, the vast central plains of Arden’s land, the Plains of Rheith, which stretched eastward for seven hundred miles from the Gray Mountains, and twice as far north and south, would already be shadowed deep in night.
A generation ago these plains had been well peopled with farmers who raised the food that fed the wide Land of Narinen, and shipped it in barges down the Rheith to the eastern ocean. Now the settlements were fewer, the farmsteads lonelier. Wilderness was returning. Of the farmers who remained, some had grown fat through courting the volatile favor of the dragon and his men; and many who had once tilled the earth and raised herds for their own benefit now did so for his. Others had dwindled, struggling to sustain a meager life, their wealth gone to pack the dragon’s vaults, the price of a submission that was not quite eager enough.
Many towns, too, had taken root there in the centuries before the dragons came, and cities had grown up, alive with the bustle of trade, and the more serene pursuits of art and learning. Roads, broad, well paved, and straight as far as the eye could see linked them, bringing news of the wider world on the lips of merchants and scholars, travelers and Rangers, as they journeyed from town to city, or stopped along the way to water their horses and pass the time of day with a farmer in his field. But the roads between the abandoned fields were now long untended. Grass sprouted from their cracked stones. The cities lay mostly in ruins, their wealth plundered, their books burned, their mansions of art, their halls of learning, reduced to heaps of fallen stones. The people in the towns did not stir from them, and did not welcome the few strangers who entered their small, guarded world.
To the east of the Plains of Rheith another chain of mountains rose. Though in recent times they had become known as the Coastal Range, of old they were called as the Green Hills, a name that lived still among those dwelling in their gentle shade. No man, no elf, could say if the Green Hills were in truth older than the Gray Mountains, but to all who laid eyes upon them they seemed ancient, worn low by wind and rain, bent beneath the weight of unreckoned years. Their eastern face looked over the coastal plain to the great ocean and to the City of Narinen, the Republic’s fallen capital and Arden’s true home.
Silence was again their companion as Arden and Evénn labored up the winding trail to the pass. Aside from a few words at breakfast they said nothing at all the first day. In the evening when they stopped for the night they were high up among the pines and firs. The air was cold and thin. It left them little enough breath for thought, and almost none for conversation. The next day they left the trees behind before the morning was half gone, and soon the slope became too steep for riding. So they dismounted and led their horses. Or rather, Arden led his; Moonglow and the other troopers’ horses simply did as Evénn wished with scarcely more than a murmur from him.
At length they were approaching the gap between the mountains’ shoulders where the pass lay. With a shock Arden realized that he was lightheaded, and as bone weary as only the cold and tired can be. Though over the years he had made this journey many times, it always surprised him that he, who forgot nothing, could forget – until the next time – the near giddy exhaustion of the hard climb’s end. All he remembered was the sense that on this mad height his eyes beheld a true vision of the world. Arden could not put what he saw into words that satisfied him; he knew he could not, because a part of it eluded his understanding, like the memory of a well-known thing that hovers just out of reach.
Raising his eyes from the stones before his feet, he saw that Evénn had drawn some distance ahead. Arden watched him for a moment, then muttered to himself with half a grin.
“Not bad for a five thousand year old man.”
“But I am not a man,” Evénn said over his shoulder, and paused to let him catch up.
“No, of course not. I did not mean it that way.”
“I know.”
“But you are the first elf I’ve ever met.”
“Am I?” Evénn answered, quietly amused. “Once your people and mine met more often, but that was long ago before you crossed the sea. Oddly enough, the men who remained behind in the eastern lands saw us more frequently, yet it was you who proved more faithful when the dragons returned. Most of them submitted and fought against us.” He paused to consider what he had said, then went on. “But none who resisted survived for long. The dragons destroyed them utterly. Fear can make hearts faithless.”
“Many of my people did – do – the same,” Arden replied. “The terror of what happened at Narinen, which we had thought so mighty, led them to submit, but some did more than that.”
“Do you hate them?”
Arden did not answer at first. He thought back to the fierce passion, so like love, that had blazed within him in the first years after the Fall. He shook his head.
“No,” he replied, “not as I once did. Mostly I pity them. They are men as I am. Not all are as evil as their deeds. Some went seeking a way to protect their families, and became entangled in their choices. Still, they are all the enemy. For myself, I had nothing left to protect. My choices had all been made.”
Arden’s last words came after the briefest hesitation, like a familiar but unwelcome reflection.
“Just so,” Evénn said.
They began climbing again. Presently the path bent round a large outcropping of granite, and the pass came into sight not two hundred yards away. The sun hung low in the sky behind them. At these heights it lent only a pale golden light that did little to warm them against the sharp breeze blowing from the west. The air rasped in and out of Arden’s lungs. For a moment his head swam. Talking in this air had not helped his breathing. He looked up at the elf just ahead of him and, for all his shortness of breath, he laughed with a lightness of heart he had not felt for a long time.
Evénn stopped again to look back. His smile and the golden sunlight made his face shine.
“Why are laughing?”
“I am laughing at myself.”
“But why do you amuse yourself so? Is the thin air making you lightheaded?”
“Do not be offended, but I had always thought that elves had pointed ears. As I said, you are the first I have actually met.”
Evénn, his smile broadening, said, “I don’t know where that story comes from.” He burst out laughing himself, and laughing together they came to the high point of the pass: the wind and sunlight streamed from behind them, and ahead all the Plains of Rheith slept in the darkness. They stood there on the margin of night, looking out across the world, eastward and then back westward, where the red sun broke the horizon.
“In this place,” said Arden, “I can almost imagine that none of it ever happened, that all below is still as it was, and our people and families await our homecoming, wondering where we are and when we shall rejoin them. If only that were true.”
“That is because nothing has changed here,” Evénn answered. “This place is just as it was. It is much the same far out to sea, where the land is barely a memory. There, just as here, there is no evil or change. Days and nights succeed each other but do not mark time.”
Arden grasped what had eluded him so long about this place. It reminded him of the great sea by which he was born, and the sight of which he had so long denied himself.
“It is long since I have been at sea, but you are right. Time does not pass there, or its meaning is different. The present at sea is everlasting, in a way that it is not among men on the land. Nor among elves either from what you say.”
“Among the elves, too,” Evénn agreed. “We should take heart from that. It is a sign of hope.”
“It is?” said Arden surprised.
“Yes,” Evénn said as the sun plunged beneath the horizon. He looked over his shoulder at the rising twilight. “It means that there are some things the dragons cannot touch. But it is night and it will grow cold quickly at this height. As I recall, there is a cave not far below us where we may take shelter until the dawn.”
“There is. The Rangers keep it stocked with firewood and provisions. I was just thinking of it not long ago. After the climb it is always a welcome place to rest.”
“Let us go then, and warm ourselves and rest.”
They started down the eastern slope into the darkness. After about half a mile they found the cave, sheltered from the wind in a recess of the mountain. While Evénn tended to their horses, Arden kindled a fire. Beneath his skilled hands it soon glowed warm and bright. Argos and the wolf immediately lay down as close to it as they dared. Evénn and Arden sat in peace, sharing their supper with the wolf and the dog, while the wind whirled outside in the icy darkness.
As Arden and Evénn rode down the eastern slope the next morning, they welcomed the growing warmth of the sun on their faces. Not far ahead now a great wall of trees marked the upper boundary of the Forest of Tasar. Arden led the way, but he was not watching the trail before them. His gaze was cast ever outward, to the east, the sea, and his home. No eyes of man or elf were so keen, even from this lofty height on so clear a morning, as to see that far across the wide land of Narinen. The Green Hills themselves were too far beyond the curve of the earth to be seen. Not the least part of what Arden looked for was visible to him, but ever since the rising of the sun a vision of the shores of his home and the high walls of his City had appeared within him. He felt he could almost hear the sea and smell its salt on the air. It was all impossible, he knew, but the memory was strong upon him. For a time he disregarded all the reasons why it could not be and reveled in it.
For the first time in many years he also found himself strangely eager to return to the last free remnant of his people. He felt he had important news to tell them, that now it was time again to try the strength of the dragon. What Evénn had said three nights ago made clear that this was why he had come. Surely with the dragonslayer’s help they might at last succeed. Last night as they stood in the pass Evénn had offered up the timelessness of the earth and the sea as a sign of hope. Perhaps the evils of the world were not eternal.
“Perhaps,” Arden whispered to himself.
Yet, though Arden felt his spirits rise within him along with the sun and his memories of home, he kept a close watch upon his emotions and reined them tightly in, as a rider does a spirited horse that cannot be given its head. With every step they took down the mountainside, the tension between Arden’s eagerness to bring Evénn to the Rangers and his need to control it mounted. But for all that, his hope was for his people alone. His heart lay buried in the past.
“That would be too much to hope for,” he murmured again as he checked himself.
“What would be too much to hope for?” asked Evénn from close behind him.
“Victory,” Arden lied. Pointed or not, the elf’s ears were sharp.
“Nonetheless we must try.”
“Yes, but we may try alone.”
“Then that is what we shall do,” he paused. “Tell me, when do you think the scouts of the Rangers will meet us?
“The Rangers who guard the forest keep a close watch on this pass,” Arden responded. “So it’s likely we’ve already been seen, and that word of us is on its way to the Masters. But no one will approach until the Masters reply. That will take time. For now the Guardians of the Forest will watch us to see which way we choose to go, and to see if I give them some sign.”
“And if you do?”
“That depends on the sign. I could tell them to kill or capture you. Even if I signal that all is well, it is forbidden to bring anyone to the fortress without the Masters’ leave. By nightfall we shall be surrounded. But if we suddenly find ourselves in a ring of bowmen, make no move unless I do. Remain still. They are no more likely to recognize you as an elf than I was. It is a long time since your folk and mine have met on this side of the sea. And none returned from the war in your land.”
“Tell me,” Evénn asked, “does Raynall live still? He would be very old by now.”
“Raynall, son of Daglor? Yes, he lives, and he was well the last time I was here three years ago. What do you know of him?”
“It was he who brought me here the last time, some sixty years of the sun ago. But we came from the east, from Narinen, and we had leave to come. He was a young man then, twenty years or more younger than you are now.”
“Raynall was on of my teachers when I came here after the City fell. He seemed old to me then, but I was just a boy. Everyone seemed old to me.”
“What did he teach you?”
“He taught me the sword. He was the Master of Swords by then. Now he is the Master of Rangers.”
“That does not surprise me. Even then it was clear that he was well thought of. And I thought your fighting technique looked familiar. Raynall and I often practiced together in the months I was among the Rangers. He was a better swordsman than you are.”
“So he has always told me. And proved it. I have never defeated him in a match.”
“That is also no surprise, and no shame either. Few could match him. Did he teach you anything else?”
“When he learned of my interest in history – that I had been about to go to the scholar’s town of Prisca to study when the war came upon us – he taught me much of our land and the world in general. You know, I asked him once when we were studying the history of Talor whether he had ever met an elf. He said he had not. Actually, now that I think of it, he was the one who told me that elves had pointed ears.”
Evénn laughed and said smiling, “He always did have a sense of humor. He knows very well that we do not.”
“Did he know who you were?”
“Not at first. When I came, I did so under a different name. The point of my journey was to renew and reinforce the bonds between our people. Who I am did not matter. The message is more important than the messenger. But eventually, as friendship grew between us, I told him my name.”
“How did he react?” Arden asked.
“He laughed. We both did.”
“Of course. I guess his telling me that elves have pointed ears was his revenge on me for ceaselessly plying him with questions about everything beneath the sun.”
“It may be indeed. You are still quite inquisitive, you know. I can only imagine what you were like as a boy,” said Evénn, still laughing.
“I am sorry. I know that I have asked you many things and not always liked the answers –”
“No, you have not,” Evénn laughed again.
“ – but meeting you has raised many questions that no other has ever been able, or willing, to answer.”
“I see. It’s quite all right. No harm was done, and there were things you had to know if we were to walk the path god has laid before us. But today perhaps you will allow me to ask the questions.”
“Of course.”
“Then why,” asked Evénn, “did you so devote yourself to studying history if hope seemed futile? Such despair would have made many see no point to it.”
“My father was a member of the Council of the Republic and always sought to imbue my brother, Alairan, and me with a sense of the importance of remembering the past. Without memory, he said, we were little better than the beasts, and would remain children forever. Then, too, the stories and songs of the past had fascinated me ever since I was a child. I could also hide myself in imagining those days and people. That was true even before it all ended.”
“And what, Arden, did you have to hide from before the dragons came? In those days the Republic was rich in wisdom and strength.”
“Not much. For the most part my youth was blessed, a time of joy and good fortune, but even so,” Arden paused like a man unwilling to say more, “not everything was to my liking. The forest may flourish while one tree withers.”
“I see.”
Evénn let the conversation end, as Arden plainly wished it to do. There was some deeper frustration, some sharper point to Arden’s bitterness, than even the horror of watching his world overthrown could explain. For he was not reticent about the war itself. What had Arden lost that so affected him that he would not speak of it thirty years later? Then Evénn remembered how Arden had winced at his mention of the first love of youth.
Arden, he now saw, had lost someone before the long night fell. The look he saw in the Ranger’s eyes when he spoke of the perils of trying to restore what had been lost was quite eloquent. It was not the fallen world Arden had thought of in that moment, but the girl he had loved and never forgotten. And she, too, was dead. No wonder his temptation. For him the twilight had begun before the dragons came. For him the memory of the past was both a solace and a curse. Even if they overthrew the dragons, the day would never fully come for Arden. The wound was deeper than Evénn had guessed, but Evénn understood it.
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