03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 5.2

So the two rode down through the woods, saying nothing at all for several miles. Ahead of them Argos and the wolf flitted between the sunlight and shadow beneath the trees. Evénn was watching them appearing and disappearing when Arden unexpectedly glanced back and beckoned him to follow. They moved south off the path until they came to a precipitous slope of broken stone where the horses could not go. At first, as they carefully picked their way across the scree on foot, all they could hear was the wind hissing down the slope and the patter of tumbling stones. Then suddenly the sound of water reached their ears, and all at once before their feet was a stream rushing headlong down a channel worn deep and smooth through the ages. For a little while they stopped there just listening to its music and watching the sun glitter off its clear waters. As the minutes passed, Evénn noticed an expression that was almost peace briefly touch the Ranger’s face.
“Here is another place,” said Arden quietly without turning around, “where there is no time as men or elves measure it. It is not the sea to be sure, but for many years I have found great pleasure in this stream and the sound of its waters. Every time I come this way, no matter my hurry, I always pause here.”
“It’s beautiful, as the sound of water always is. Nothing more so. Though I have walked this mountain path before, long, long ago, I was not aware of this place. And if it is not the sea, the voice of the sea can be heard deep within it, for it leads there in the end.”
“That it does.”
“What is it called?”
“Down in the plain men name it the River Swift, but I call it the Seaborne. It joins the Rheith many miles to the east on its long journey to the sea. I have never followed it for its whole course, nor have I been back to the sea since I left it as a boy.”
“Why not, since you clearly love it so?”
“My duty has never called me there.”
“Is duty needed to go where your heart tends?”
“For me it would. But soon enough it may do so. Come, Evénn. I wished to show you this place, but it’s time we were on our way.”
With that they turned away again and returned to their horses, winding ever downward through the forest. Evénn continued to listen closely to see if he could still hear the stream, but the woods soon grew thick about them, and only occasionally could he catch its sound, now closer to them, now farther away, now more loudly as it plunged over some sudden drop to dash itself upon the rocks below, now more quietly as it ran on and on in its smooth, old channel.
Late in the afternoon, when the sun was gone from the eastern face of the mountain and the chill in the air began to grow, Evénn turned to Arden once more with questions.
“Raynall taught you history, you say, as well as the sword. Did you have many books at the fortress?”
“Oh, yes,” Arden replied, with evident satisfaction. “There is a great library, with many thousands of volumes. Once it could rival any school in the land.”
“Truly? I didn’t know that. I always knew that the Rangers trained the mind and spirit as well as the body, but this library is news to me.”
“Well, I am glad we have a few secrets you have not learned,” Arden laughed. “The library of the Rangers is older than the Republic. Our penultimate king, Aléthen, was also a seer, and one night towards the end of his days he dreamed a dream in which a disaster befell the world, and all learning and knowledge of the past were lost. When he awoke, the dread of this vision so burdened his heart that, although the dawn was still hours away, he sent at once for his son, Stochas, and commanded him to found a library in some safe and secret place. Stochas chose the hidden depths of our mountain stronghold, and entrusted this labor to us.
“In all the centuries that have come and gone since Aléthen’s day – and even you must call it a long time – never have we neglected this trust. For the task was worthy in itself, and the king was a true seer. All he saw came to pass. And so, through the flowing years we have copied the books in our care again and again, slowly, precisely, faithfully, lest our memory of what was be corrupted. Not only that. Rangers have often been sent abroad to gather more volumes, to the cities and scholars’ towns of our own land, or across the sea to Elashandra, and to the kingdom of Seraal before they warred on us.
“Once a pair even traveled to Pa Davil and the Mountains of the Dawn to copy a book we could find nowhere else in all the world. While there they crossed into the Valley of Encounter and saw the Tower of Memory, which none of our people had ever done before. The two of them were gone for so many years that even the Masters despaired of their return. But beyond all expectation they came back at last, with the book and tales of the strange lands they had seen. The account they wrote of their journey is preserved in the library, and every apprentice Ranger must read it.
“Even now that the disaster Aléthen foresaw has finally come upon us, Rangers still go seeking books. We sneak like thieves into the ruined cities of our own land to glean what we can from the rubble of the libraries and schools destroyed by the dragons. A few have ventured even into the remains of the king’s library at Narinen. Nor have all returned. So, you see, Evénn, we were – and are – as much the guardians of that knowledge as of our people’s liberty. In one respect at least we did not fail.”
“It is not failure, my friend,” Evénn argued, “when all your strength and will do not suffice. Or at least it is not a failure that merits blame. No one would accuse the Rangers of giving less than their best to carry out their stewardship.”
“You speak kindly, Evénn, and I thank you for it, but I am not sure you are correct.”
A sidelong look was the elf’s only comment.
“Do you recall my saying that at first Rangers were sent to try to slay the dragons?”
Evénn nodded.
“After those attempts failed,” Arden went on, “the Masters would not sanction another. Even though all the other dragons departed within two years and left the red dragon to rule this land alone, the Masters still refused to try again. This decision is our doom. As long as the dragons live, we will never be free. While we do nothing, they grow stronger. Time is on their side.”
“Time is on no one’s side, Arden,” Evénn answered, “and you have no weapons that can harm the red dragon. Have the Masters explained their decision?”
“No. I have asked. I have protested. ‘It is not yet time,’ they say. ‘We must be patient,’ they say. Not yet, not yet, not yet. I question their courage. It is easier for them to hide in their stronghold and pretend to be Rangers than for them to risk all and prove that they are.”
“You speak in the bitterness of your heart. For you measure all things by it. Your refusal to accept their decision does not make it wrong; their refusal to act does not make them cowards. It may be they are waiting –”
“For what?” Arden asked. “Each year the enemy grows stronger; each year our people become more estranged from us. And why should our people believe in us? All they see are bedraggled wanderers who haunt the wild lands and forests. Most of them will not even look at us. The few who do are full of doubt. I saw it that day at Kinabra. I see it all the time. The dragon’s men tell them we are nothing but outlaws, and they are coming to believe it. All the while, we take counsel. We bide our time. For what?”
“I know what you have seen. I’ve seen it, too. But, as I began to say, perhaps the Masters are waiting for something to happen, a sign that the right time has come.”
Arden did not respond, and for a time Evénn allowed him his silence. But his eyes never left him. The Ranger’s face was impassive, his gaze so deeply withdrawn that Evénn wondered at his ability to stay on the trail. Bit by bit the set of Arden’s jaw grew harder, and his lips half pursed, half taut, like a man facing a truth he did not wish to express.
“Don’t you think so?” Evénn asked him at last.
Arden turned to him suddenly, and Evénn could tell that he had been aware of every moment of his scrutiny. Still Arden did not speak. Instead he glared at him and cocked an eyebrow.
“There, you see,” Evénn said, with a hint of a smile. “I thought as much. Beneath all bitterness and grief a place remains within us where all the lies we tell ourselves ring hollow. You know the Masters are right.”
“You spoke of a sign.”
“Yes, like the two of us, man and elf, riding in together, with this,” Evénn went on, and bent down to pat the object wrapped in blue silk, which was tied to the saddle beneath his right leg.
“I have wondered what that was.”
“But you did not ask.”
“Not all of our conversations have gone well,” Arden said wryly. “I guessed you would tell me in your own time.”
“And so I shall,” Evénn replied. “Soon enough.”
“Then for now I shall let it be.”
“Well done, Arden. You may yet grow wise.”
“Yes, the next thing you know, I’ll start speaking of god and in riddles as you do.”
“Stranger things have happened,” Evénn said with a laugh.
“Yes, like me, of all people, riding into the Rangers’ camp with the dragonslayer, and that being taken for a sign.”
As night was falling they made camp in a glade surrounded by ancient black walnuts. There they built a large fire and ate their evening meal in silence. When they were done, Evénn asked Arden to tell him more about the library. To pass the time and allay the suspicions of the watchers he was sure were already encircling them, Arden agreed.
Every young Ranger spent a part of his apprenticeship there. The few who wrote a fair hand – “not me,” Arden added with a quick laugh and a shake of his head, “my efforts won me only sad looks” – learned old scripts and copied books in the scriptorium. Of these the best were chosen for further training when their apprenticeships were over, and their duties were divided between the library and the world outside the Valley. Those who wrote like Arden studied the binding and preservation of books, and the art of making good, black ink that did not fade. And so generation by generation the collection had grown, with new books and fresh copies of old books joining the volumes which already lined the shelves. Nothing was lost, nothing neglected, nothing destroyed. The library now took up many different rooms and chambers scattered throughout the keep; and only the Master of Books and his priors knew where everything was.
While Evénn and Arden spoke of these matters, Argos and the wolf were staring intently into the gloom of the woods around them, but made no sound or move. Every now and then Argos would raise his head, sniff the breeze, and wag his tail slightly, as at the presence of a friend, then look to Arden, who would shake his head and beckon the dog to lie down. The wolf followed Argos’ lead and, without a word from Evénn, lay down beside the hound. But their eyes never left the woods, and their ears swiveled this way and that, catching sounds that Arden at least could not hear. If Evénn heard anything, he gave no sign; and if Arden signaled the watchers that all was well, Evénn did not see it. In time he bade Evénn good night, threw more wood upon the fire, and stretched out beneath his cloak.
For their part the watchers took this all in as they tightened their cordon around the camp. They listened to Arden, who spoke loudly enough for them to hear, and they heard his companion’s soft replies. The bright fire made all in the camp clear: Arden and the stranger, Argos and the rather surprising wolf – they seemed to be friends – and the stranger’s tall horse standing among the others with the brand of the dragon on their haunches. As the watchers’ numbers grew, they sent parties up the mountain, to scout out the way Arden and the stranger had come and make sure they had not been followed.
Thus Arden, Evénn, and the watchers passed the night. Arden, sleepless himself, noticed that for the first time since they had met the elf stayed sitting by the fire. He did not leave the camp at all.
At first light Arden got up. Shreds of mist drifted through the grove. Evénn looked to him for a sign, and the Ranger gestured for him to remain by the fire, now burning low in the morning dim. Beside him in plain sight lay his sword, bow, and the silken bundle. Arden packed up their gear and saddled the horses. He smothered the fire and scattered the ashes. At last he signaled to Evénn to rise.
“Leave your weapons on the ground,” he said.
Evénn got up and stood next to him. Arden called Argos and the wolf over to them.
“We are surrounded by many men,” Evénn murmured, as he gazed up at a half dozen hawks drifting in slow circles high above them. He could see their pinion feathers making the smallest adjustments to the trim of their wings. They were not here by chance, he thought.
“Yes, any who pass this way are closely watched, Ranger or not. Twenty years ago at another of our encampments in the southwest more than a hundred Rangers died because of a lapse in vigilance. Since then the Guardians have been merciless to any they deem a threat.”
“What do we do now? It was not like this the last time I was here.”
“Those were days of peace, and you had permission to come. Now things are different. If we simply begin moving south, the guardians will kill us.”
“So then?”
“Watch,” said Arden, with a flicker of a grin. “If they kill me, you’ll know we’re in trouble.”
Arden turned to face south. The moment he took a step forward, Evénn could hear bows beginning to bend. Arden stopped, and held his hands low at his sides, palms open and empty. Then he called out in a loud voice.
“Guardians of the Forest, you know me. I am Arden, son of Tyr. Despite the ban, I have not come alone. I bring a friend to the Rangers, a mighty warrior, and an ally to our cause. We have left no living enemy behind us to discover our secret ways. Slay us if you will, since we have broken the law. But, if you do, you will slay something our people have long needed.”
Arden waited, motionless. Evénn looked about him, moving nothing but his eyes, and listened closely. Time would tell now whether they would live or die, as the leader of the Guardians weighed the trust he put in Arden’s character against the commands imposed by broken law. The sky brightened. A bird sang. Another answered. The breeze stirred. A thick patch of mist hurried past them. Suddenly a tall man, lean and broad shouldered, was standing before them. All gray he seemed, his dark cloak, his short, grizzled beard, his braided hair; and he regarded them with eyes as gray and clear as winter twilight. Evénn gazed back, impressed. He had not heard him coming.
“Our people are much in need these days, Arden, son of Tyr,” he said calmly. His gloved hands were folded before him, not far from the hilt of his sword. “What is it you bring that I should set aside the law?”
Arden bowed slowly to this man and straightened.
“I bring hope, Master Jalonn,” Arden said respectfully.
The man inclined his head slightly, and looked at Arden with an eyebrow raised. His lip curled for a moment, as if he were about to laugh.
“And where would you, of all people, find that?” he asked. “You are right. We know you, quite well, and you are not much given to hope.”
“True enough, Master, but I bring hope for our people nevertheless.”
“But none for yourself?”
“Hope for our people is all I may have. What else is there?”
“There is much, Arden,” Jalonn answered. In his tone Evénn caught the hint of long acquaintance. This was not the first time he had said words like these to Arden. “What hope do you bring, then?”
“I bring the dragonslayer.”
The gray man now cocked an eyebrow at Evénn and looked him up and down. He seemed neither surprised nor impressed. The elf returned his gaze. A whisper ran through the woods as the news of the dragonslayer spread from Ranger to Ranger. Jalonn looked back to Arden.
“Silence,” he commanded without raising his voice. The whispering ceased. The Master frowned, dubious, and folded his arms across his chest. Long he looked at Arden and many thoughts and emotions flitted subtly across his face. Evénn could see him wonder if this could be true, if Arden were a fool, and if he would be more of a fool for believing him. Finally the Master spoke again.
“If he is indeed Evénn the dragonslayer, there may be something to what you say, Arden. But Evénn disappeared a thousand years ago and has seldom been heard of since. That he should reappear to us in our time of need would be glad news indeed. But this fellow doesn’t look like a dragonslayer to me. If he is Evénn, then I am the king of Talor.”
Evénn laughed out loud.
“But that would make you my father,” Evénn said, “and he has been dead these thirty years.”
The gray man still regarded him doubtfully, but in his eyes was the glint of laughter.
“And what does a dragonslayer look like, Master Jalonn?” Arden asked.
The Master ignored this question, and spoke to Evénn directly.
“What say you, elf? Are you truly Evénn, the son of Halar?”
“If you do not believe that I am, bid your bowmen shoot. I offer you my life here and now,” replied Evénn.
“And I mine, Master Jalonn,” Arden added.
For several moments the Master reflected, his arms still folded across his chest.
“Your life would already be mine, elf, if I wished it,” he said and paused again. “But that would prove nothing. Very well, I shall let the law sleep for a day, and you will come with us to the fortress. Wait by your horses and make ready to follow. Arden, I do this, for I know that you are no liar and less of a fool than you once were, but my heart misgives me. I fear we shall pay dearly for the hope you bring.”
“The cost to your people has already been high,” said Evénn. “It will only grow higher.”
That is the only thing I have heard today of which I am not unsure. And that is why I let you pass. The time has come for us to risk everything or be scattered to the four winds.”
“Like ashes,” said Evénn, as he and Arden walked over to their horses.
“Like ashes,” answered Jalonn, his eyes on their backs.
The Master then waved his hand, and Evénn could hear the slow unbending of many bows, which he had heard bend and unbend in sequence many times already, as one set of bowmen succeeded another at the ready. Presently several dozen men and women clad in green or gray quietly filtered out of the woods all around them. Many dogs accompanied them, two or three for every Ranger. Most were wolfhounds like Argos, huge and shaggy, gray or black, the dogs of war; a few were smaller, with a pied coat of black and white fur, and in their pale eyes was an intelligence that took in everything around them and did not rest. Evénn and the wolf had all their attention.
The Rangers said nothing to Evénn or Arden, nor much even to each other, but watched them closely, pondering what they had heard and its meaning. Their ages varied, Evénn saw. Many were in their twenties or thirties, but more of them looked to be Arden’s age or older, like Jalonn. Regardless of their age, all had the weathered appearance of those who spend years of days and nights beneath the sky, summer and winter alike; and all shared the same countenance of hardship and pain. They had seen much, suffered much, and did not care for the memory of it all. Though he had never seen them before, Evénn knew them well.

Jalonn called several of them over to him, and with a few quiet words gave them their orders. In groups of four or six they departed into the forest. Several raised a hand of greeting and farewell to Arden as they went, a brief smile coming to faces that wore them seldom. Arden did likewise, then looked to Jalonn and the five Rangers standing near him. One of them glanced up at the sky and whistled. A hawk plummeted from above, alighting on the Ranger’s heavily gloved right hand. With his left the Ranger tucked a small note Jalonn wrote out into a leather sheath on the bird’s leg. He hurled the hawk into the air, and walked quickly off into the trees. The hawk beat its wings, rapidly gaining height and speed, and passed swiftly out of sight to the south.
“You have told them of our coming?” Arden asked Master Jalonn.
“Yes.”
“What did you say?”
“A word,” Jalonn answered with a wry look.
“What word?”
“Evénn.”

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