03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 7.1

Seven

My father called me early that day. It was the first of autumn, and I was to leave for the scholars’ town of Prisca to begin my studies. Winter or summer he always rose when it was still dark to prepare for the day. So by dawn all of my bags and boxes of books had already been loaded onto a cart for my departure. As I looked out my bedroom window, in the morning light I saw the servants leading the horses out to harness them. The leaves that skipped across our courtyard told me that the east wind which had risen last night after sunset was blowing still. When I came down to join him at breakfast, I asked if he was in a hurry to be rid of me.
“No, son, not at all,” he laughed, “but it is best to begin our journeys early. For we never know what we may meet.”
“Father,” I said, “I have been to Prisca many times and have never yet met an adventure.”
“Ah, but today may be different. In fact today will be different, Arden. You will begin your studies and live away from home for the first time. You will make new friends.”
“I don’t want to make new friends. I like the ones I have.”
“And what’s wrong with new ones? The friends you have today will not always be there. Your grandfather used to tell me that when I was your age. I didn’t believe him either, but he was right, you know. The older I got, the wiser he became. It was uncanny.”
“So you’ve told me.”
“And I’ll tell you again,” he said with a wry smile, then he stopped and looked at me.
“What is it?”
“Your mother would have been proud of you.”
“But I haven’t done anything yet.”
He grinned at me again, with mischief in his eye. Though he meant every word he’d said, he was making game of me. He knew I hated it when he spoke in his fatherly manner. But this morning he was all ‘Old Father Tyr,’ as my brother used to call him whenever he conjured the shades of our mother and grandfather to tell us things he rarely said in his own voice. It was his way.
“If you’re finished,” he said, gesturing at my empty plate, “go check your room. Make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.”
“I have checked,” I said, getting up.
“Humor me,” he replied as he took the last bite of his own breakfast.
“Very well,” I answered.
He was not looking at me now. With his wonted care he was folding his napkin. He laid if back in its place beside his plate, and smoothed it flat, just as he always did before he rose from the table, just as he would tomorrow when I was gone.
Until that moment I had not considered what my leaving meant to him. Young as I was, I had thought only of myself and my friends. Now my heart was full of him. He had married late, lost my mother soon after I was born, and raised me and my brother on his own. Now Alairan was across the sea, and I was leaving for Prisca. After today he would be alone. For the first time I knew I would not have him forever.
“Go check your room, Arden,” he said as he stood up. Our eyes met only briefly. “Life goes on. We must go with it.”
He understood my every thought. He always did. I could never fool him. The few times I tried to lie to him he would just look at me with an expression that let me know he didn’t believe a word I was saying, but he was going to let me say it if that was what I wanted. I went upstairs to look around my room.
I thought I had left nothing behind, but talking with my father had altered my mood. My chair, my desk, my books, even my bed, all seemed different. I had lived in this room all my life, but it had changed and grown as I had. First there had been toys, now put away somewhere, except for two that proudly held the high ground on the shelf above the books that had taken their place. The clothing I had outgrown had been given away to other children my family knew. My first bed was gone, too, replaced five years ago by one more suited to my sprouting years. I felt I would never be here again. I sat down, daydreaming.
“Arden! Arden, come now!”
My father’s shouting roused me slowly. In his voice was a sound I had never heard from him before. It was the voice of a man who suddenly saw that something was very wrong. There was also a terrible urgency. I wondered if the house was on fire.
“Arden!”
He was clearly outside. So I jumped up and ran to the open window. My father was standing on the bluff overlooking the sea behind our home. He was calling servants and issuing orders. They came to him as they went again an instant later, running. Some never even got close to him. As soon as he saw them, he began shouting instructions that sent them on their way. I heard him bidding the stable boys to saddle the horses, now. Amazed, I leaned out the window and was about to call out to him, when the east wind gusted so hard in my face that I had to shut my eyes and turn away.
When I opened them again, he was looking straight at me and pointing out to sea. His eyes never left me as my gaze followed his outstretched arm. Then I saw the ships, men of war, far out to sea but coming swiftly down the wind, their square sails spread wide like dark wings, sharp against the sun and blazing waters. Hundreds of ships of war. For a moment my heart leaped. For a moment I thought our fleet was returning victorious from across the sea, that my brother Alairan was aboard one of those ships.
Then I saw them. Huge, winged shapes, swooping and circling against the morning sky, effortlessly, it seemed, but always coming closer, growing larger with each beat of my heart, racing in on the wind. Their outstretched wings must have spanned a hundred feet, and their bodies, from the tip of their snouts to the end of their slender tails, were nearly as long. At first I could not grasp what my eyes so clearly saw, until one stooped on a small sailboat, which was desperately trying to outrun the warships in a mad rush towards a leeward shore. One of the beasts fell from the sky, swift as a stone, but true as an arrow in its path. Just above the boat it snapped out its wings and pulled up sharply. Its head darted forward like a striking snake’s and flames streamed from its jaws, engulfing the boat entirely. The beast did not wait even a moment before soaring upward again. The ruined boat came up into the wind at once, burning down to the waterline. Even the waves that battered its hulk could not douse the fire.
“Arden, now,” my father shouted again, more urgently than before.
I tore myself from the window, ran down the stairs and out of the house. Servants dashed about the courtyard, dispatched in haste by my father. Stable boys and grooms struggled to saddle the frightened horses, who tossed their heads, eyes wide and nostrils flaring, and tried to rear. I saw my father’s horse lift one boy high off the ground, the boy’s legs kicking and stretching to reach the ground as he clung tightly to the chestnut’s bridle. I remember thinking how brave that little boy was. Our dogs raced from one person to the next, barking at the confusion, demanding answers. In the midst of it all the cart with my possessions stood disregarded. I raced through the open gate in the eastern wall and crossed the porch where on spring or summer evenings we used to watch fishing boats and small sloops, men of war and merchantmen, returning to friendly harbors. How different it looked that day.
As I approached my father, I stole another glance at the sea. Since I had left my window, the armada had come visibly closer, driven by that foul east wind; and behind them more sails were crowding the horizon.
“Arden, listen to me,” he said. “The enemy will soon be here. Take the servants, gather up as many of our neighbors’ wives and children as you can and lead them up into the hills –”
“No, I will not leave you. We –”
“Arden, you do not understand. I must go to the city. If we can hold the enemy off for even a little while, some of our people will be able to escape.”
“But –”
“Be quiet. I said you do not understand and I meant it. Today the City will fall and all its defenders with it. If the elves and our men together could not stop the dragons, we certainly cannot. We do not have the power, in men or magic, to hold them off; even if we could, the City is not ready for a siege. We cannot win. We can only buy time for others.”
“I will fight with you.”
“You are not a soldier.”
“Neither are you, father. And I have been trained to use a sword and bow.”
“But you have never killed a man before, Arden, and there will be much killing today. Our servants and friends need you to lead them to safety.”
“Send someone else.”
“There is no one else. Your brother – ”
“ – is not here. And he would want to go to the City with you, too.”
“Yes, but he would also obey me,” he stopped and sighed. “And he is dead. I don’t want to lose you both in one day.”
I had no answer to this. We could only look at each other. A confusion of love, fear, anger, and grief played across my father’s face. He knew that what he had to do would not end well, but it had to be attempted. He suddenly appeared far older than his fifty nine years.
“I’m sorry, father,” I said quietly, “but I will not obey you in this. I choose to be with you no matter what.”
“But by your choice you will die, and leave others to die as well.”
“So be it. I will go with you. We can send the stable hands to round up the others. They will be fine with them, you’ll see.”
His eyes were dark with displeasure and doubt. He was not used to such disobedience from me, and time was pressing him. The ships of the enemy drew closer.
“Will you not obey me?”
“No, sir. I will not.”
“Then I pray to god you are right. Go, get your sword. I hope it’s sharp. You are going to need it.”
As I started to go, one of the servants began shouting, “Look, look!”
Still over a mile out to sea, but high aloft, the dragons were flying in a circle above the leading ships, a circle that grew ever tighter and higher as they went around. At last they were so close to each other that they seemed to be pivoting around a central point; the tips of their wings almost touched. Then one after another they pulled up from the circle and soared upwards in a spiral which expanded as they climbed.
We stood transfixed, watching them and marveling at the beauty of their flight, their wings beating more quickly than any of us could have imagined in beasts so large, their bodies one graceful curve from head to tail. They climbed so high the sun no longer silhouetted, but illuminated them; and their different colors gleamed brightly for all the distance between us. They were red, golden, silver, and black. It took my breath away. I wondered how evil could be so beautiful. Finally, when they had risen so high that they were visible only as a splendor of color and movement, each one broke from the spiral and fell from the heights like shooting stars that never burned out. Now, however, they were no longer moving towards us, but northwards towards Narinen; and as they changed direction, so did the wind and every ship of war beneath them, coming about to starboard in one long fluid movement.
“They shifted the wind,” my father gasped, amazed.
And it was true. For the wind had veered and now blew out of the south, but more moderately than before, a perfect wind for taking them safely along the shore to Narinen.
“A wind of enchantment, conjured for our destruction,” my father said quietly. “I should have guessed as much. The sea was not troubled enough for that east wind to be real. Arden, get your sword. Now we must hurry.”
I ran back across the porch and into the courtyard, which was still a tumult of activity. I had almost reached the door to the house when I remembered that my sword was packed in the cart, so I could continue my fencing lessons at Prisca. But who knew where? I rummaged through the cart, recklessly casting aside the books and clothing and other articles which were treasures an hour ago. With each moment I became more desperate to find the sword and rejoin my father. Time was pressing. Time and fear. This was a different morning than I had expected.
“Son,” my father called to me as he entered the courtyard, “you must treat your belongings with more respect, especially your books. You will find your sword in the right front corner. I hope you’ve more respect for it.”
I looked up at him astonished. In the midst of all our haste he had grown calm. The anger and confusion of a few minutes ago were gone. It was as if with the shifting of the wind he became reconciled to all that would happen that day, and resolute in his conviction that he must face it as best he could; that nothing more could be expected. He spoke now with the steady voice of the father I had always known, calm, confident, and assured. This return to himself calmed me as well.
“Now get your sword. It’s time to go,” he said.
With that he turned away and mounted his horse, instructing several of our servants to ride across the fields, gather up our friends and neighbors, and help them to safety. But they stared at my father in terror. Some of the houses he was sending them to were only a mile from the City. One of the stable hands protested that it was too dangerous, and would not yield until my father asked him where his sister and her children lived. The man fell silent. For they lived at one of those houses.
On my horse I clattered out of the courtyard behind my father. At the main road we turned north towards the city three miles away, and immediately met a tide of people flowing swiftly in the opposite direction. The riders we passed were not all servants or soldiers on urgent missions, nor were all those in the wagons and carriages women and children. Among them we saw men we recognized – neighbors, friends, men full grown and capable of bearing a sword, men we thought we knew better – fleeing often at a breakneck speed that left their families behind. In fear or shame they looked away when they saw us. Several wagons had overturned; one carriage had lost a wheel. The tide fled on past them. I glanced at my father, who shook his head in disgust as if nothing could be done.
Other, braver, men joined us as we rode. They came through the fields of tall grass, jumping their horses over the hedges and fieldstone fences that divided one holding from another, or down the long tree-arched lanes from their homes to fall in with us. Before we had gone a mile, a dozen gathered around us. Like my father, their attention was on weaving through the mob as swiftly as they could, and if they raised their eyes at all, it was to the walls of the City in the distance. But the dread in our servants’ faces, and the cutthroat haste we encountered on the road, kept dragging my gaze off the road to my right, to search for any sign of the men we had sent to help our neighbors.
At first I thought it would be easy to glimpse them, moving parallel to us on the lush, open green that rolled down to the bluffs above the sea. Many times before when riding along this road I had seen people far off on foot or on horseback. All I desired was one moment’s assurance that our men had not run away, too, but today I saw no one. The fields seemed empty. I told myself we were riding too fast, that the road was too crowded for me to look long enough. With every glance I stole more time in the hope of seeing what I wanted to see.
“Mind your horse, boy,” a harsh voice warned, as my horse bumped the one next to me, and the rider’s crop stung my thigh.
I swerved away, and for a moment rode alone beside the road. I could not help looking again. There, just entering the grove of trees around the home of my friend, Hedále, was a single rider, gone before I could even ask myself who he was. I gasped in relief, and realized I had been holding my breath. My eyes still fixed on the wood, I started back for the road.
Suddenly the red dragon came soaring up over the bluffs beyond Hedále’s. He rose several hundred feet, then turned and plummeted downwards, leveling off just above the grove. Lonely figures of men and women burst from the trees, running alone or in groups of two or three. They scattered in every direction. Above the house the dragon pivoted sharply and paused in mid-flight more nimbly than any bat. His head lunged forward, and the grove exploded into flames. With a snap of his wings he soared upward again, to hunt in the fields of fire. He left none living behind him.
“Arden, ride on,” my father shouted back to me.
So we rode on, as the countryside ran with flame. That south wind fanned it. Smoke swirled everywhere, choking us and burning our eyes. But as yet the dragon had not attacked the road. When I asked myself why, the answer came crawling from the pit of my stomach. The dragon was herding us like cattle. The road was to be our slaughter pen. Then off ahead of us on the right, a mile or more away in the lonely distance, I saw the house of Gwinlan. It was just visible through the smoke, the last house still untouched. I reined in my horse so hard that he neighed in protest. My father glanced over his shoulder at me and stopped.
“Why are you stopping?” he demanded as he rode up.
“The dragon is driving everyone onto the road,” I cried, but it was the house I could not take my eyes off.
“I know. We cannot help them,” he replied grimly. Then he saw the direction of my gaze, and added, “or our friends.”
“Look,” I said, “the dragons have not yet attacked Gwinlan’s house. Let me go warn them, tell them to hide.”
“Hide? There’s no place to hide.”
“Let me go.”
“No, Arden, no. You will be trapped out here if you do.”
“Please, father, I’ll cross the fields to Gwinlan’s, and cross them again to the West Gate of the City. That will be the last to close. I can make it. I know I can.”
“No, it is too dangerous.”
“More dangerous than the City? Gwinlan and his sons are dead across the sea, father. His wife and daughter have no one but me. She – ”
“Enough. Go.”
With a last look he was gone. I spurred my horse into the smoke. We leaped ditches and fences, and splashed through streams. My horse ran all the harder because almost everything behind us was burning now, and fear of the fire at his back made him keen to escape it. From where I left the road it was nearly a mile to the house of Gwinlan. I had known him and his sons from my earliest memory. His wife had been like a mother to me, always kind and ready to laugh, and his daughter, well, I loved her as only a boy of those years could love a girl.
At last we ran clear into sunlight, but a shadow fell. Above me stretched the monstrous wings of the red dragon. When they beat it was like a clap of thunder shocking the air about me. I shouted encouragement to my horse, but my voice sounded thin and faint, the voice of one someone shouting far off in a storm. My horse began to shy. I fought to keep him headed for the woods around Gwinlan’s house, but the next beat proved too much for him. He stopped short and bucked me over his head. I hit the ground hard. I jumped up, gasping for air, and looked around for my horse, but he was gone. I was confused. He could not have run out of sight so quickly. Where was he?
Much closer now the wings beat. Their wind staggered me, as the carcass of my horse struck the earth not ten feet away. They beat once more, and the next gust threw me down again. When I raised my head from the dirt, the red dragon was there before me, folding his wings along his sides. He crouched like a giant cat, and I was his mouse. His shining head swayed slowly from side to side, turning this way and that. He observed me, contemplated me, despised me. His tail flipped behind him, curling high above, then uncurling as it whipped down again. But it made no sound, so softly did it touch the earth.
I knew from the songs that I should not meet his gaze, lest he bewitch me. At first I tried to avert my eyes, but I couldn’t help myself. And my death was at hand, as I thought, so why not? What use would it be to him to ensnare a boy like me trembling with anger and fear? I looked him full in the face.
His snout was long and slender, covered in small red overlapping scales – like those of a fish or a well made hauberk, but burnished so that they would glow even on the darkest night. His lips were thin. His oval nostrils tapered backwards, flaring with each breath and change of expression. His head widened as it approached his eyes, on either side of which his pointed ears pricked up or swiveled to catch every sound. Like his nostrils they seemed to reflect his every thought. But the eyes, the eyes were crimson, shimmering with life, luminous as blood, yet the black slits of their pupils were dark and bottomless. Even as I lay there on my belly before him, it made me dizzy to look into them, like I was sliding down an undulating slope into emptiness. I fought against it. I shook my head to clear my mind. I struggled to recall my name.
Then his ears came forward and his eyes widened. I could swear he smiled at me, a faint, false grin. He exhaled in a short, thoughtful grunt. My effort amused him. The fire and death around us amused him. The thousands dead, and the thousands soon to die, amused him. This pause with me was just another moment of play. Hatred and wrath flared within me, and I struggled to one knee, my eyes never leaving his. Reaching over my shoulder, I grasped the hilt of my sword. His eyes opened wider in delight, his grin broadened to reveal his teeth.
“Brave boy,” his voice dripped contempt. Then he let loose a single, derisive laugh.
“Ha!”
And with that he sprang into the air, wings unfurling, and was gone.
But my eyes would not leave him. I stood there, expecting him to circle back and blast me from the earth. Instead he flew off towards the road. The people there battled to escape him. They knocked each other down; they trampled on the fallen; carriages, carts, wagons swerved, collided, turned over; men screamed. At the last instant the dragon shot upward into the gray veil above the road. I did not breathe. The fugitives on the road paused. Every eye sought to penetrate the cloud. In the still, silent ordeal of waiting, even the wind made no sound. It brushed my cheek, bent the tall grass near me, and rolled the smoke down the fields. But the dragon did not return.
Suddenly a shout came from the road, and set the whole mob moving again. I turned and ran for Gwinlan’s house. Despite the smoke the trees and the garden beyond were still green and calm, just as I’d seen them on many another morning, but the house itself seemed deserted. I hunted through the empty rooms for Gwinlan’s wife and daughter, calling their names. No one answered. It was like finding yourself in a dream in which you are searching for someone you cannot find, though you know she is there somewhere, just around the next corner. Nothing seems wrong, but everything is.
As I stepped out onto the porch on the east side of the house, my gaze swept across the garden, from the stables on the south, along the low brow of a wooded hill, to the gardener’s shed at the northern end, and back again. It was the wide open stable doors that drew my eye. Then a calm voice spoke close at hand.
“Arden. What are you doing here?”
Down the long porch to my left, in a corner enclosed and deeply shaded by roses entwined on trellises were Gwinlan’s wife and daughter sitting on a bench. It was Lady Gwinlan who addressed me. She perched on the edge of her seat as if it were yesterday. Her head held high, her back straight, her legs tucked beneath the bench and crossed at the ankles. She wore her silver hair pulled back from her round face and gathered at the back of her neck, not the finest wisp astray. As always she cradled an open book in one hand on her lap. With her other hand she marked her place on the page. Beside her sat her daughter, equally straight, but excitement and fear shone from her eyes as we looked at each other. She smiled.
“Arden, are you going to answer my question?” Lady Gwinlan said. Her lips were pursed and her eyebrows raised. She was expecting an answer.
“Sorry, ma’am.” I replied as I walked towards them. “I’ve come to warn you. The dragons are herding everyone out there onto the road. They’re burning everything on either side of it. I fear they mean to –”
“Yes, I take your meaning,” she said, stopping me from saying too much. “Well, what would you suggest? Plainly we cannot sit here forever with a war going on.”
“Yes, ma’am. I believe you have deep, stone cellars beneath your house, ma’am? That is the safest place I can think of. You can lock yourselves in until...”
She raised her eyebrows again in polite inquiry.
“…until my father and I return from the City for you.”
For the only time in my life I saw Lady Gwinlan close to losing her composure. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Then her daughter burst out.
“Arden, you can’t go to the City,” she cried, jumping to her feet and taking a step forward.
“Please, sit down, my dear,” said Lady Gwinlan, recovering herself. “Arden, we shall do as you suggest and await your return.”
“Mother, no,” her daughter said. “We can’t let him go.”
“My dear,” she said again, more firmly, “do sit down. Arden must go if he is to reach the City before the gates close.”
Her daughter remained standing.
“I suppose you have a horse, Arden?” Lady Gwinlan asked.
“Actually, ma’am, I lost him on the way here. The fires spooked him and he threw me.”
“Then take one from the stables and be on your way. No one here will need them.”
“Your people ran away, ma’am?”
“Yes, one of those hideous creatures flew over the house and they all ran. Now go, Arden. You are wasting time.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
I turned to go, but her daughter rushed forward and took me by the hand. We looked at each other. We waited for words. Another moment and I could not have gone.
“I must go,” was all I could say.
“Come back,” she said.
“I will. God will see me through. But others need me now.”
I squeezed her hand. As I turned my back and hurried away, she whispered “come back” behind me. In the stable I found a horse already saddled, abandoned in the panic caused by the dragon passing overhead. Like almost everything else at the house of Gwinlan that day, the mare seemed deceptively calm. I mounted and urged her to a gallop, cutting across the garden. Lady Gwinlan was right. There wasn’t a moment to be lost. The gates would be closing soon.
As I rode past the porch, I raised my hand in farewell and tried to look cheerful, but neither of them saw me. Lady Gwinlan held her daughter’s bowed head to her shoulder and stroked her hair. All her attention was devoted to her. I bit my lip and went on. The garden ended, the woods passed by, and the horse carried me back out of the dream and into the fields of fire.

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