03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 7.3

Beyond the fountain a grim, final combat was being waged. Dead men lay on all sides, ours and theirs without distinction, and in the middle of all in the broad space between the eastern side of the stoa and the fountain stood the black dragon. Unlike in the bailey by the Mountain Gate, here he had ample room to stand proudly, wings unfurled, his head high upon his long arching neck, his tail lashing behind him like a whip, his fore and hind legs spread wide. With his long and slender body, his deep chest and brawny shoulders and forequarters, he reminded me of one of the great hunting cats of the south, made to spring suddenly and kill swiftly. But if beautiful and graceful as a god of cats, he was also monstrous, fifteen feet tall at the shoulder, a hundred feet from tip to tail, iridescent black scales tightly clothing sinews that flexed and rippled as he moved, with a serrated dorsal ridge and curving claws in his feet. All black he was, though blackest of all were his eyes, as lustrous as onyx but with a glance as hard and keen as obsidian.
Surrounding him at a distance were several dozen men, our men, armed with spear and sword and bow. Had it been any other beast, any great predator of tooth and claw, I would have said that they had brought him to bay. But it was not so. These men, the last of our defenders, were fighting for their lives, not the beast for his. Having seen what I had seen that day, I marveled at their doomed courage. Yet they fought on, staunch in the end of their strength, constant in love for their homeland, though even the merest flick of the dragon’s tail or blow from his talons meant death. Over and over I saw men rush in to strike only to be flung back by the beast and land in a heap yards away. Even those who came close enough to strike the creature did him no harm. For their weapons scarcely marked his armored sides, and many shattered upon impact. The attackers fell like leaves before a storm, and I wondered how many of those already fallen here had done so in this hopeless battle.
But there was one I saw whose attacks were not wholly vain. He was a bowman, a Ranger clad in gray, who appeared from the southern side of the square with several others after most of the rest had already failed and died. He moved quickly through the shadows and smoke, and took what cover he could find, behind the ruined trees or the columns of the stoa. He loosed arrow after arrow at the dragon, always at the same target, the eyes of the beast. The bowman’s first shot struck his right eye and vanished as it hit home, as if it had completely penetrated the eye. That earned the dragon’s wrath and he turned swiftly to spy out his foe, but the bowman and his companions had already moved to another place of concealment, from which he loosed another shot. That, too, vanished. Now the dragon shook his head, more annoyed than injured, and rushed forward, but his attackers were gone. A third shaft darted from the darkness. Again it struck the right eye; and again the dragon shook his head and advanced, to find no one. A fourth arrow followed with the same effect.
From my hiding place I could see it all, the Ranger and his companions shooting and moving at once, disappearing uncannily into the night, then reappearing to shoot again. The battle shifted back and forth, the attackers moving now left, now right, but more often to the dragon’s right, like a fighter or duelist who always circles to his opponent’s injured side. In this way they moved closer and closer to me until at last I saw the bowman appear, now alone, behind a broken column of the stoa. He drew, aimed, and loosed again.
In the firelight I recognized him at last. He was Mahar of Caledon, Master of the Bow in those years, whom men called Strongbow. Once before, years earlier, I had seen him at a meeting of the Council to which my father had taken me. Afterwards my father brought me up to him, and introduced me to a kind, soft-spoken man who greeted me with a smile.
But this night he was none of these things, and he made the fire and smoke and darkness, the weapons of the dragon himself, his own weapons. All the other attackers had been nothing but sport for the dragon, and he had allowed them make their puny attempts only to bring them closer. But Strongbow, who came and went in the night and somehow could not be found, was hurting him. For, though the beast showed no outward wounds, he shook his head a little harder each time an arrow struck, and then he advanced more aggressively to find his enemy.
Watching this unfold filled me with the joy of vengeance, and I cherished the hum of every arrow. It gladdened my heart to see the enemy take some hurt before the end. And I was filled with even more wonder when I saw that Strongbow seemed to sing as he fought. Though his words were lost in the ceaseless howl of the dying city, to a boy raised on the old songs Mahar’s duel became a living poem. Then his next arrow flew, lit from behind by the flames of the Houses of the Republic, and an emerald light shimmered brightly around it the instant before it pierced the dragon’s eye. Mahar was singing an enchantment, fighting the beast with a weapon I had not imagined. For a moment the world changed, and I saw clearly. There was more than the dragon and the darkness here.
The others still alive in the square with me also lifted up their hearts. For they grew bolder and renewed their attacks. Many fell as before, but a few now lived to strike again. One man delivered two heavy blows with an axe to the beast’s right foreleg. Though they did not penetrate the scales, they clearly stung the dragon. Strongbow’s spells were working. With a racing heart I rose and was about to join the attack myself, when I was hit from behind and forced to the ground. I rolled over to strike at my attacker, but he pinned me and my sword arm to the pavement with his body.
“Stay down, Arden, you fool,” a voice I knew shouted in my ear.
“Father!” I cried out.
He dragged me back under the cover of the fountain and briefly embraced me.
“What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you,” I shouted back. “The Mountain Gate has been breached, but a burning building has collapsed and barred the street.”
“It doesn’t matter. The City is lost. You must escape.”
“Not without you I’m not.”
“Arden, you will obey me. Narinen has been taken. The enemy roams the streets, killing and plundering at their pleasure. Even here the dragons merely toy with us. You must go.”
“I will not.”
“Arden, anyone who remains here will die. You must fight another day.”
“No, not without you. I will not leave you.”
“Son, you must. You are all that survives of our family. Your brother lies dead across the sea. You must live.”
“What about you?”
“I will stay here with Master Mahar. By giving the dragon his sport others may yet have time to escape. Use the postern door in the southern wall. Do you remember where it is?”
“But Strongbow is hurting the dragon.”
“Listen, Arden. There is no hope here. No matter what Strongbow does, there are three more dragons. They are all here now, watching this contest. Now go.”
“Do as I say, Arden. Do it if you love me.”
With that he dragged me to my feet and shoved me towards the south end of the square. My feet were numb and reluctant, and I was just passing through the colonnade when the dragon roared just as he had back at the gate. Hope unfurled within me as I turned, thinking that Strongbow had dealt the dragon a mortal blow. I ran back towards the battle, drawing the Captain’s sword, my sword.
But the cry of the dragon did not signal his pain or death. It was a roar of triumph. He had at last pierced the darkness and veils of enchantment the Ranger had used to elude him. The two stood face to face. Strongbow’s quiver was empty. He set the large bow against a broken column, and unsheathed his sword as elegantly as any duelist come to settle a debt of honor in the summer dawn. He stood tall before the beast, and strode without fear or doubt to meet death. The dragon crouched back to spring on the one foe in a thousand years who had done him harm. For now blood was oozing slowly from the beast’s eye. My father and the other men were inching towards the dragon, waiting. Just as I arrived, the attack began. Mahar darted forward, his sword held high and glittering.
The dragon leaped to meet him, scorning the rest of us, and bore him to the ground. As he raised his talon, I saw my father duck beneath it, and plunge his sword deep into the dragon’s eye. The beast flinched away in pain, then struck my father aside with the blow he had meant for Strongbow.
I stopped. I wanted to run to my father, yet feared to look away from the beast. I hesitated. To the dragon my indecision was nothing, as I was, as we all were. He ignored our attacks. Pinning Mahar down with one talon, he plucked out my father’s sword with the other. A mist of blood sprayed from his wound. My eyes and face were suddenly ablaze with pain, and even the brightest flames around us dimmed. My sword rang loudly as it hit the paving stones at my feet. I felt myself falling, and heard the dragon howl in triumph once more. The other three joined their voices to his. The sound of all four together seemed to pull my soul from my body. I thought it was all over.
I awoke with an acid taste in my mouth, which drove off the thought that I had dreamt this wretched day even before I opened my eyes. The City still burned, though more quietly; the smoke whirled around me. The rain had ceased. Of the dragons there was no sign. I sat up and tried to spit the taste from my mouth, but I couldn’t. It hurt even to try. I touched my face. On my chin and right cheek were several spots as tender as agony and oozing, burned by drops of the dragon’s blood.
I looked around again, my head still reeling, but there seemed no present danger. I found my sword and sheathed it, then began crawling from body to body in search of my father. All were dead, slain by talon or flame. It was hard to stare closely into those raw faces, searching for some familiar feature. None were my father.
Staggering to my feet I began to search more widely. Nausea and dizziness rebelled against my every step. But at length I found him, leaning on the far side of the broken column against which Master Mahar had propped his bow. Even now my father cradled it in his lap. From the terrible wounds on his face and chest I scarcely knew him. One of his hands was gone, and he was covered in blood. His hair was matted with it.
“Father,” I called out as soon as I saw him, but he did not reply.
“Tyr, son of Alairan,” I called him by his given name, a thing I had never done before.
Slowly his eyes opened, but he gazed at me from far away.
“Arden. You live,” he said, sleepily pleased.
“I told you to go.”
“I couldn’t leave you.”
At this he smiled so faintly, as if his soul were still barely here.
“It is all right,” he paused, then said with difficulty, “but you must go now. They will find you here. Dawn is not far off.”
“What dawn can there be now?”
“The day will return, Arden, but you must get out of the City while you can.”
“We’ll go together."
“No. I am nearly finished. I’ve lost too much blood. Here, take the bow with you.”
"I’ll carry you,” I protested.
But he died then and I was alone. I closed his eyes and kissed them, ran my hand over his head as he had always run his over mine. Gone. I took the bow from his lap and slung it across my shoulder. Leaving him there was the hardest thing I had ever done. He had taught me to pray for the souls of the dead, but my mumbled words fell flat upon the earth, where he lay, where all my thoughts were. I touched his face one last time and left him.
I made my way south through the streets as quickly as I dared, being sure to get off the main road to the South Gate as soon as I could. Sometimes I had to double back because the streets were blocked by fallen buildings or soldiers of the enemy. Several times I had to avoid roving parties of the dragons’ men. It was then, hiding, sneaking down the backstreets, trying to escape the doom of my homeland, that true fear at last overtook me. Every sound, every breath of air became a terror. But I was determined to live, and return one day to take my vengeance. Strongbow had shown me that the dragons could be hurt, and from the songs I knew that dragons could be slain. To do so was the calling of my heart. But first I had to survive.
So through dark streets and alleys I went, choking on the smoke and ashes the wind scattered before me. I fled from shadow to shadow, from one pile of rubble to the next, sometimes climbing over mounds of bodies in some narrow place where our men had made a final stand. I wondered if the postern door had gone unnoticed, or if I would have to fight my way out. In the Street of the Wheelwrights I stopped beside the corpse of an enemy, and stripped his cloak and helmet from him. Master Strongbow had taught me that the weapons of the enemy could be used against them, and I resolved to imitate him in this small way. Looking like the enemy I might pass unnoticed, or gain a moment’s surprise if I had to fight.
By the time I had covered the mile and a half from the square to the walls, light had begun to penetrate the darkness outside. Above me in brief patches of sky between the fire and smoke, the first colors of morning glowed. The sun would soon rise up from the waves. A day ago I was glad to see the dawn. Today its light could only reveal me to the enemy, and show me more sights I did not wish to see. Once outside the City, even disguised, I would be one lonely figure on foot, heading in the wrong direction through a ruined land. I had to get as far away as I could before it was fully day.
To my surprise the postern door was unguarded. It seemed too good to be true. For several minutes I peered around the last turn, and tried to resist the proddings of my fear. I was about to cross the street when the clopping hooves of a patrol made me draw back and take refuge in the first doorway I could find. With every slow, loud step those horses took the sky seemed to grow brighter, but at length they passed by, and I returned to my corner. From there I watched them until the smoke swallowed them up and the hoof beats faded.
Then I ran for it. The door was closed, but unbolted, and I wasted no time getting inside. Halfway to the outer door a single torch was burning, but the long corridor was empty except for a single body slumped against the wall just inside. It was a man, not as old as my father, his chin sunk on his chest, one hand cupped over his heart. He looked asleep. Only the blood that had welled through his fingers told another tale. Wounded and alone, he had dragged himself here, not to escape, but to die in peace, shielded by the thick oak of the door from the clamor of the streets. For an instant a vision of him came to me: staggering in the door as he fought his wound, pushing the door shut behind him, then leaning back against the wall, and sliding slowly downwards. He was at rest. I begged his pardon as I stepped over him.
My hand was reaching out for the bolts on the outer door when a sound made me jump and whirl around, raising my sword, but it was only the man’s body falling over. I heaved a great sigh. For I thought I’d been caught. I turned back to the door and opened it a little. There wasn’t much to see. The fires outside had exhausted their fuel. Gray banks of smoke scudded past on the breeze from the sea. I stepped out onto the road which encircles Narinen, and walked away as calmly and purposefully as I could, like a man with some minor duty to perform. The arrow I expected in my back with every step never came. Either no one saw me, or my disguise made them hesitate just long enough for the smoke to close around me.
I moved more quickly now, still intent on getting as far away from the City as possible before the sun was high. Unseen somewhere off to my right the road ran down from the South Gate, but that was clearly too dangerous for me to use. Nor did I wish to see at close hand the the remains of yesterday. All my thoughts were fixed on escape and evasion. I had no idea where I was going. No destination, no direction, no home. When I thought of the road, it was as a place of danger and horror, not the once welcome path that led to my door. I did not ask myself if my home still stood, or if any of our people had survived.
Soon I came to a stream, which of all the things I’d seen in the last day, seemed fair and unpolluted. As I knelt beside it, I meant to stay only long enough to wash the blood and filth from my hands and face, and, once they were clean, to drink away the taste of the dragon’s blood. But those clear waters stopped me. Their touch, their taste refreshed me and gave me strength. For a long moment my mind shook off the darkness of Narinen. I remembered where I was. This was the same stream I had followed on my way to the City yesterday.
And I remembered Gwinlan’s daughter.
Yesterday I had known that war was upon us, but yesterday I had known nothing of war. My innocence told me she would be safe, and I chose to help others. Today I was washing men’s blood from my hands. Today I knew there was no shelter.
“I left her alone.”
I leaped up and ran for the house. Between my dread and my blind haste, between my burning lungs and the stabbing pain in my side, it was like running in a nightmare. No matter how hard I tried, I seemed to get nowhere. It could not be so far, I kept telling myself. Each veil of smoke I passed through revealed only another solitude of withered grass and scorched stones. Then all at once the ruined woods loomed up. Blackened snags and blasted stumps raced past. I came to the garden, and slowed down. Nearly stopping, I drew my sword.
Dead flowers lined the garden path that opened before my feet, guiding me along the once familiar way. No fire had touched them, only the heat of the burning woods. And at the end of the path her house still stood, a ghost adrift in the red haze of morning. Until now fear had urged me on, but now that I glimpsed her house through the smoke it held me back.
I abhorred every foot of that path.
I longed to reach its end, but hated the longing.
Yet all I could do was go on.
Halfway to the house a woman lay face down among the flowers to my right. An arrow protruded from between her shoulders. She looked to have been running for the house when she fell. I caught my breath at first, but her hair was dark. She was not Gwinlan’s daughter. Relief surged within me, until I saw that she was my friend, Loran. She had lived nearby, just across the fields. She had probably fled here seeking refuge.
“Had lived,” I thought.
Only two days ago she and I had watched this same sun rise out of the sea with our other friends. But everything else had changed. Again I tried to pray.
In the dirt at the foot of the porch steps I found an enemy soldier flat on his back, a bolt from a crossbow in his upper chest. There was a very surprised look on his face, and the blood on his lips was still wet and full of bubbles. I reached down to touch his cheek with the back of my hand. It was still warm. But if he’d been alone, there was still a chance for Gwinlan’s daughter. I hurried up the stairs, across the porch, and through the open door.
Just over the threshold Lady Gwinlan rested in her own blood. No book filled her hands now, but a crossbow, and several more bolts were scattered around her. She had defended her home. I stood looking down at her. For all the blood, she seemed as poised as ever, as if death were just another caller to be greeted at the door. Speechless and still, I remembered the kindness of her character, which deserved better thanks than my failure to return in time.
Beyond her, red footprints led down the house’s long, central hallway. They drew my unwilling eyes step by step after them until they reached the morning sun room at the far end. It must have been the sun of another year which shone through those windows that morning. For the room had all the warmth with which I was familiar, but in the midst of this pool of light lay Gwinlan’s daughter, all bloody, with the sunlight shining golden in her red hair. Her face turned blind, green eyes to me; her left arm stretched out an open hand, palm upward, in seeming invitation.
“Oh, no,” I murmured. Grief fell upon me like the sea. Then a sudden voice barked from behind me.
“Here, what are you doing here? Your lot’s supposed to be in the City.”
I turned my head just enough to see him over my shoulder, this gruff sergeant of the dragons’ men. Two more soldiers crowded behind him in the doorway. I had not heard them coming, but my stolen cloak and helmet bought me the instant I needed to undeceive them. My left hand crept to the hilt of my dagger.
“Well, what have you say for yourself?” said the sergeant when I did not reply at once. He was expecting an answer.
“Just this,” I hissed and pivoted to my right, my sword slashing his throat. As he collapsed, I jumped forward through the spray of his blood, and thrust my dagger deep into the belly of the surprised man behind him.
The next ducked under the return sweep of my sword, as his own sword flashed from its sheath. But I was upon him before he could extend his arms, and drove him backwards across the porch. Then the low rail hit him in the back of his legs and he lost his balance. I struck his sword from his hand and kicked him in the chest, knocking him over the railing and into the flower beds six feet below. His eyes grew wide as he saw me leaping down after him. My sword pinned him to the earth.
I rested there a moment on one knee, leaning heavily on my sword, my rage ebbing, my pain returning. But another noise, a boot scuffing the dirt, made me raise my eyes. There was another soldier, a young lad like me, in the middle of the garden not far from Loran’s body. He was staring at me in amazement, and walking slowly backwards. The instant our eyes met, he ran. I unslung Mahar’s bow, walked over to the soldier slain by Lady Gwinlan, and snatched an arrow from his quiver. The boy was already at the edge of the trees, dissolving into the smoke, when my shot somehow struck him at the base of his skull. I heard his body hit the ground. I listened for a while, but the garden was quiet and empty again.
I climbed back up the steps and entered the house once more. She still lay down the hall in the sun room. Nothing had changed. Four more men were dead and nothing had changed. It made no difference. Now all I loved were dead. I knelt beside her, lay down my sword, and gathered her into my arms at last. If other soldiers came, it meant nothing to me now. I was with her. All warmth, all light ebbed from the world. Even before today she had been lost to me, betrothed to another in a politic marriage meant to ally two great houses of the Republic already bound together by generations of blood. But she had been alive, and I loved her.
Hours, it seemed, I knelt and held her. When I finally tried to stand, I found my legs were numb and would not obey me at first. I forced myself to get up and walk. Across the garden towards the sea was a shed, which furnished all the tools I needed, a pickaxe and shovel. Three graves I dug there at the garden’s edge, one for Loran, one for Gwinlan’s wife, and one for his daughter. I carried them each in my arms and laid them down. Linen sheets from the house afforded them shrouds, sewn shut by my clumsy fingers. Each shovel full of earth was heavier than the last, from weariness, from sorrow. It was done at last as the sun set. All the while I heard no sound of bird or beast. The sea lay flat and calm. No wind blew. The only sounds were the shovel and the City burning in the distance.
In the dusk I stole across the fields to Loran’s house, but found only ruins, barren of life and memory. Hedále’s house was the same. From there, had I looked, I could have seen my own house burning. Not a living soul did I meet, no friend or enemy. I returned to Gwinlan’s, and wandered from room to room, sometimes sitting for a moment or two only to rise and walk on. Upstairs was her room, one window looking east to the sea and another towards to Narinen. Had she stood there that long ago morning, and watched the fleet and the dragons come in as I had done from mine?
Throughout the evening the east wind rose steadily, and by midnight the smoke had cleared away. The moon rode high above the black and silver sea. Waves began to break upon the shore. It could have been any night. Was the world as indifferent as it seemed? To the north, the flames of the City again towered into the night. Occasionally dark shapes flew across them. How did god let this happen? Not knowing what else to do, I set fire to her house. As I walked out the door, I took off the cloak and helmet I had used as a disguise and threw them back inside. I lay down on my side by her grave.
“From now on,” I said to her, “I will call you Sorrow.”
When sleep overtook me, I dreamt of the sea.
The morning sun woke me. In that brief time before thought and memory come, when sleep still embraces us and all we are is what we sense, I was almost happy. With my eyes still shut, I listened to the sea, and could almost see the long, green waves glittering and glowing as they rolled towards the shore. Above me I could feel the sun in the blue sky. Its warmth touched me through breeze, which had brought rain while I slept and taken it away again. I caught the rain’s fragrance. I drew it deep into my lungs as I stretched and sighed. Then I smelled the smoke. The moment of not knowing ended. I opened my eyes and sat up. But for her grave the morning was beautiful. The world and its god went on regardless.
I hung my head. Where should I go? If the dragons had crossed the sea to attack us, surely they would move on to the other cities of our land. Was I to go to one of them and wait for other days like yesterday and the day before? Or should I stay here by her grave and wait for more soldiers to come and fight them until I died? I stood and turned towards the City. As I did I saw a man sitting on the ground nearby, calmly watching me.
He was leaning back against a charred fencepost, his naked sword cradled between his shoulder and the arm he had draped casually across his updrawn knee. Though his clothes were filthy with blood and soot, by their cut and their gray color I could tell he was a Ranger. His features were composed, but sad. He let me take a good, long look at him before he laid his sword to one side and stood up. As he started towards me, I stepped back.
“Easy, lad. My name is Jalonn. I am a friend,” he said.
“What’re you doing here?” I asked.
“The same as you. We all have griefs this day.”
“You were there?” I gestured with my head towards the City.
“Aye, at the Sea Gate.”
“I was at the Mountain Gate. The dragon shattered it.”
“It was the same with us. They were too powerful, their soldiers too many.”
“What’s your name, lad?”
“Arden, son of Tyr,” I answered.
“Your father was the council member?”
I nodded.
“I saw him. He fought well, but I lost sight of him when the enemy drove us from the gate.”
“He’s dead now,” I said quietly. “He died with Master Strongbow, fighting the black dragon”
He paused in reflection, and sighed.
“Is that where you found the Master’s bow?”
“You did well to take it.”
“My father insisted,” I said, not much caring.
“Is any of that blood yours?” he asked, gesturing at my clothing.
“You should let me tend those burns on your face.”
“No. Thank you.”
“As you please.”
We looked at each other awkwardly for a while.
“These people here, they were your friends, your family?” he nodded at the graves.
“Yes,” I said, thickly.
“What will you do now?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Come with me then.”
“Where will we go?”
“To the Valley of the Rangers.”
I stared at the graves. I didn’t want to leave her. But what was left? I sighed. Jalonn came up close behind me, and rested his hand on my shoulder.
“Arden, there is nothing here,” he said.
“I’ll go with you,” I said, but I knew he was wrong.
“We’ll wait here until sunset, then head south. We must travel by night.”
I made no reply. He patted my shoulder and left to keep watch. In time I joined him, and we passed a day without words, each of us alone with our thoughts. Several times horsemen passed by on the road to the west of us, but they showed no interest in coming any closer. At length the sun sank to the tops of the Green Hills. All the fields, the white walls of Narinen, and everything we could see were red and brooding as the night came on. In the deep twilight Jalonn rose.
“Time to go,” he said and began to walk away. After a few steps, he looked back at me. My eyes were still on the City, my thoughts on her grave. Jalonn came back.
“Narinen was a great city, Arden, ancient and beautiful, rich in history and legend, but now she is gone.”
“If that world ever existed, we don’t live there anymore,” I answered.
We turned our backs and hastened away.


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