03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 8.2

 At two the Council of the Rangers convened in the chamber directly above the Hall of Feasts. Though of the same size, its walls were bare of the tapestries and arms, which, in the room below, told of the history of men and Rangers. That chamber opened on a well-lighted past; this peered into the dimmer shadows of days not yet come. In its center stood a chimney, with a hearth on each of its four sides. At this hour the fires took the autumn crisp from the air, but added only a little to the light filtering through the pines outside the high windows. The southern half of the chamber was entirely empty. In the northern half four tables described the sides of a square, open at the corners so that a speaker might enter and address the Council.
Arden and Evénn had been the first to arrive, about fifteen minutes early. Arden was restless: a crucial moment, long awaited, was now at hand. But he had thought so before, at earlier sessions of the Council like this one, where every argument he advanced for attacking the dragons proved vain. If only he possessed the eloquence his father had always shown in the Council at Narinen, then he might persuade them. But if the return of Evénn did not tip the balance, what good could any words do?
While Arden leaned back on one of the tables looking remote and unhappy, Evénn stood in the middle of the square, his folded arms pressing the long roll of blue silk to his chest. He was looking out the window. The ghostly play of bright sky and dark boughs tossing on the breeze took him back to another day and another chamber much like this one. No men were present that morning, over thirteen hundred years ago, when the elf lords met in haste to discuss the dragons summoned by Talinar. Evénn’s father had been there, with Neldas, his brother, Conaras, his dearest friend, and many others long deemed powerful and wise.
Now only he remained alive. Some fell in the first war against the dragons. All but one of the others perished with his father upon the Tower of Memory the day the dragons came again. Despite the years that lay between, despite their wisdom’s failure, he missed their counsel now. Other ghosts of those days rose before him, too – faces he longed for. From the corner of his eye he seemed to glimpse them, as always, and glancing over he caught sight of Arden instead. For all the pain and doubt written on him, Arden had not passed the first minute of the unfinishable hours of reflection known to Evénn.
When the Masters and other members of the Council entered the chamber, they all took their seats, the Masters with their backs to the hearth, opposite Arden and Evénn, and the rest on either side. Evénn counted six empty chairs. Nearly a third of the councilors were out of the Valley, scattered too widely across the land to be quickly recalled. After a moment the Master of the Valley opened the session, as was customary, with the Litany of the Rangers.
“Look upon the sun and the stars,” Indushan said in her strong, calm voice.
“Know that god made them,” they all replied.
All but Arden, who resisted the urge to tap his foot impatiently. He fixed his eyes on the inlaid table top and kept himself very still. At the least he owed them this courtesy. Offending them with childish mischief was no way to begin. What surprised him, as his eyes traced the elegant marquetry, was the sudden temptation to join in their prayer. Though Arden resisted this urge, too, in his mind he heard the nearly forgotten voice of the boy he had been whispering a simple plea for god’s help. He asked himself whether this was more than just the effect of telling that lad’s tale last night, but before he could answer he realized the chamber was silent again. The litany had ended. Looking up, Arden saw Master Raynall standing before him in the center of the square. The faint smile playing at the corners of his mouth and the glint in his eye made Arden feel that Raynall had heard his every thought.
“My friends,” Raynall began, “a simple question lies before us today. Is it now time to renew our attacks on the dragons? A simple question indeed, but one without an easy answer. Three decades ago we dispatched many of our best to slay them. That trial of strength went ill for us, and for our people. Those we sent out never returned; those who tried to aid them also fell; and the dragons requited our audacity by murdering thousands of innocents. Even today, in the far south of our land, the coastal lowlands of Sharilas, where we fought our last battle, are empty. The beasts and birds have returned, and willows grow once more amid the tall grass by the rivers, but no one lives there now. Rangers – sober, trustworthy Rangers, whose word is not to be doubted – have told me the land is haunted, that they dream of dragon fire and the cries of the dying whenever they must pass a night there. Nor is Sharilas the only place the dragons ravaged because we dared attack them.
“To see so many die in vain, to pay such a price without hope – we could not allow it. So we resolved to bide our time. And we waited, for a sign, for the weapons that had slain the ancient dragons to be found, or for new weapons to appear; we waited, too, for hands with the skill to wield them. Not everyone believed god would one day help us rescue our people. Arden here was not alone in opposing us, but he and the others like him have always been dutiful. We can only be thankful for their obedience. For who could be surprised at their doubts?
“Many years have passed since that decision. Those years have brought me near the end of old age. As the strength of my body has slipped away, I have devoted more time to reflection and prayer in the hope that what my body has lost my mind would gain. It is not always so, however, that longer life means greater prudence. Thus, though it is within my power to judge this matter alone, I have summoned you all here. The decision we reach will affect many lives in many lands. So it is right that no one man alone should decide. The kingdoms and republics of the world are no more; we few, in this place of hope and memory, must together seek the wisdom to choose aright for all. How then shall we decide, and who shall be the first to speak?”
Evénn slowly rose from his chair, shaking his head at Arden who was also on the point of rising. He leaned over the table, his hands flat upon it. All eyes were on him.
“Masters and Rangers of the Council,” he said softly, “you know I have come here to urge you to reverse your decision of years past. I can also tell you that the free remnant of my own people would favor this as well. For they sent me forth nearly twenty five years ago to seek the very means of fighting the dragons you say you are waiting for, the ancient weapons by which we first destroyed these dragons over a thousand years ago. My people made no effort to combat them directly after they overthrew our world. For we knew that no ordinary weapons could slay them, however great the skill and courage that wielded them. Such weapons availed nothing against these dragons in the past, whether twelve hundred years ago or thirty. They are just as impotent today.”
As Evénn spoke, Keral, the Master of Books, leaned forward in chair. He had the look of a man who has at last made a connection he long suspected, but for which he lacked the proof. Several of the others Masters did likewise. Raynall, who was still standing in the center of the square, looked on serenely as before, his hands folded in his sleeves. Jalonn slouched back in his chair, hand to his chin, eyes on the table before him.
“Evénn, are you saying,” Keral inquired, “that these are the same dragons you faced before?”
“Indeed they are, Master Keral,” Evénn responded, “and to explain that I must tell you a tale of shame and folly. As Raynall said, the years do not always bring greater wisdom. Often the labyrinths of time and memory serve only to confound us. We lose our way, and, not seeing that we are lost, we lose even more. But first I must tell this tale, though I do not wish to. For here all our woes begin.”
Evénn then stood upright and walked around the table. Raynall yielded the center to him. Evénn began to tell them, as he had Arden, of the folly of the elf lords: how they wished to heal and restore the world, but instead betrayed it and brought death on themselves and countless others. He told them the history of their error from its birth centuries earlier as a desire to do good, as a mistaking of memory for truth, as a confusion of good intentions with good actions. At first, he said, the elves had been wise enough to see that this desire was the path of error and that the world should be left as it was, but centuries of regret for what was lost led them astray: they did not cherish the good they had, nor see that the world was still beautiful; and they began slowly to consider how they might restore the world they had known long before the dragons came.
And so their wisdom failed. Their loremasters sought the secret ways of enchantment that might regain the paradise of their memories. If they considered that it was not the world or the dragons, who were at fault, but themselves, they did so only to dismiss the notion. Finally, his tale returned to the dragons and the misspoken enchantment that summoned the evil instead of the good. And ever and again as he told his tale, he spoke of his father, the Elven King, and of his brother, and of the role they played in bringing the great darkness upon the world. He spared them neither blame nor censure.
“So, Masters, you have the truth,” he concluded, in a voice choking with irony and shame. “The evil we seek to destroy was loosed upon us all by the elves, by my people, by those held the wisest and best among us. Their intentions, their motives, do not matter. In seeking beauty, justice, and healing, they went too far. Leaving wisdom behind, they found only evil.”
He ended there. In the hour he spoke, the chamber had grown still and silent. Only Arden had expected what Evénn had to say, but even he sat with his head down and lips pressed together. His arms folded tightly across his chest told of tension and restraint. Jalonn’s eyes never left the table before him. Keral and the other Masters looked at Evénn for some minutes after he stopped, their expressions astonished, but guarded, then they closed their eyes and turned inward. Raynall continued to look upon Evénn as he had throughout the hour. The Master’s face was composed, his eyes peaceful and sad. For a full ten minutes no one spoke or moved. At last one of the other members of the Council sighed aloud and said in exasperation.
“So all this was brought on by elvish arrogance. They could not be content with the world god gave us and set out to play god themselves. I should kill you where you stand, elf.”
“Better men than you have already tried, Belorin,” said Arden. His voice was cold and impatient.
Across the room, the corner of Jalonn’s mouth curled up. He glanced first at Arden, then Evénn, who looked back at him impassively.
“And yet you live, Arden,” Belorin barked in response. “Perhaps you did not try hard enough."
Jalonn raised his head, his smirk splitting into a grin. For he knew Arden, and how violent his response to this news would have been. Belorin saw Jalonn and turned to him.
“I see nothing amusing here, Master Jalonn. Arden knew what the elves had done and nevertheless he brought us this – dragonslayer.” Belorin spat the word out with contempt.
“You are right, Belorin,” Evénn said calmly. “It was arrogance. The leaders of my people thought they knew better than god, as you have put it. There is no excuse for their arrogance, and my people have paid a very high price for it. All I can do is try to repair their error.”
“Repair their error? And how will you do that, dragonslayer, when all the legions of elves and men together could not? Weren’t you one of the leaders of your people? I have not heard you tell of your own role here,” Belorin said and his hand came to rest on the hilt of his sword.
“Enough, Belorin,” Jalonn said, his face now stern. “I share your anger at this news. We all do. But we do not threaten our guests here. That is against all the laws of men, elves, and god. Unless of course you, too, think you know better than god?”
Belorin glared defiantly at Jalonn, then turned to Raynall.
“Heed him, Belorin,” Raynall said. “Do not shame us before our guest. Rangers do not act thus, and this matter is too important for wrath to guide us. How shall we defeat our enemy if we cannot master ourselves or forgive our friends?”
At these last words Belorin’s mouth, opening to reply until then, clamped shut. In his seething glance Raynall could almost see the deaths of his parents and nine younger brothers and sisters.
This is much to forgive,” he said finally, in a voice savage, hoarse, and low.
“There is no measuring loss, Belorin, no matching one with another. Each is its own perfect hell, from which there is no escape,” answered Raynall, telling him that he both knew and did not know all he was asking of him. “But, tell me, how many more will suffer if the dragons are not slain?”
Belorin’s rage bled away in slow silence. He relented, and lowered his eyes.
But Jalonn leaned forward and, gazing at Evénn, he said:
“But Belorin’s questions are fair ones, Master Raynall, even if his manner gives offense. Where were you, Evénn, when your leaders and kinsmen went so badly astray, and how do you propose to defeat the dragons?”
“The questions are fair,” Evénn replied. “You said the other day, Jalonn, that I vanished after the last war with the dragons. The slaughter of that war lay heavily upon me. I had so much blood on my hands, of elves, men, and dragons. We fought them for over a hundred years before the weapons necessary to defeat them were ready. We survived that time only because the dragons did not act in concert then as they do now. Had they done so, the war would have ended as swiftly as it did thirty years ago. It was their selfishness and their contempt for all other living creatures, even for each other, that was their undoing. For they warred among themselves as much as they warred on us, squabbling like the petty kings they were, over borders and precedence. Yet when all had ended and the last beast was slain, the world itself was marred; forests were black and burned; fields and cities were laid waste; the dead were as numberless as the tears we shed for them. There were so many things I’d done and said that I had no wish to remember; and though I knew that god had guided and strengthened us to defeat the dragons, yet I wondered how a just god had permitted it all.”
Arden stirred at this, but did not raise his head. The others regarded Evénn in silence. For they had all been raised on the songs of that war and knew well the deeds of the dragonslayer, who disappeared in the hour of his greatest triumph, seldom to be mentioned again. When asked about him afterwards, the elves gave no answer, and the songs held no clue.
“There was no joy in victory. Doubts and troubles harrowed my soul, and the world was soaked in blood. So I turned away from that final battlefield – for so we all thought it then – and wandered the world at a loss. First I hid the three weapons. For they could not be unmade, and were too powerful to leave be. Then for over two hundred years I traveled, never staying long in one place and never finding the answers I sought. At long whiles I would return to my homeland and see my family, but I always moved on again soon.
“Finally my feet brought me back to the battlefield where we slew the black dragon. In the years since I’d left, the grasses and trees had returned; the streams crossing that plain had run clean of blood and were pure once more. All that marked the day and place of the battle was a single stone erected by my people to commemorate our victory. Through a long summer day I sat with my back against that cold stone, and watched the sun cross the sky. The world had moved on, but I had not. So of course the years of wandering led me back to their beginning.
“Changing places did not change me. So much for my wisdom. I went to see Telkar, the oldest of the elves, who had made the bow and the spear that helped bring the dragons low. He lived in the east near the Valley of Encounter, but deep in the woods to the north of it. His dwelling was so far away that the journey took me over two years on foot. When I arrived, I told him of my heartsickness and my doubts. “Seek god” was all he said. When I asked him how, he told me that, since I had not found him by wandering, I should seek him in one place without moving. So I left him and withdrew to a monastery in the southern mountains of Talor. There I stayed for centuries with others who sought god. And there I was not the dragonslayer or a lord of the elves. There I was a sweeper of floors, a tiller of fields, a beggar with a bowl on the ground before me. I was no one. But as a worker among workers and just another monk kneeling in prayer and meditation, I found as much of god as there is to find.
“After seven hundred years I returned home to find my people much changed. So many were longing for the past, not rejoicing in the day we had. There were some who held that this desire to remake the world was itself a sickness of the soul, but they were few and not among the greatest of our land. From the time I returned I strove to persuade my father and the rest to leave the world as it was, to trust that it was as god wished or allowed it to be, even if his reasons escaped us. We should repair the wrongs of the world by repairing the wrongs in ourselves.
“But all of them, even my father, looked at me as one possessed of a monkish simplicity, out of step with the life of the world. They listened politely and treated me with respect, but gave me no heed. In truth I was out of step, not with the world, but with them. It was in those days they sent me as an emissary to this land, where I had wandered centuries before, and here I met a young Ranger named Raynall, with whom I spent some months in this Valley.
“During my stay, I confided my true name to Raynall, but my father had forbidden me to speak of the path my people were considering. My father’s insistence on secrecy troubled me, but then I regarded their notions as mere foolishness. I didn’t know the full extent of their intentions yet, the means they meant to use to realize them, or the terrible danger those means entailed. Years passed before I discovered the incantation they were perfecting to summon dragons from the world of spirits. For these reasons I remained silent too long despite the misgivings of my heart.
“Oh, if only I had trusted them. By the time I learned the truth, it was too late to summon Telkar from the east."
"If all you say is true, my friend," Raynall said, "your father and the others wouldn't have listened, not even to the maker of the ancient weapons. The mad hear no voice but their own."
"You're right, I fear. For like me, Telkar had been withdrawn from the world too long to be taken seriously. No matter how we had devoted ourselves to god and the spirit, those who had not thought they knew what god wished, and they hurried recklessly over the precipice, to the destruction of all. So, Master Jalonn, you ask me where I was and what was my part? I was there, but failure was my part.”
“And what then, Evénn?” Keral asked. “You spoke of your search for the ancient weapons.”
“After our defeat at Elashandra my people were scattered. My first duty was to gather all I could find and lead them to a secret refuge we had established before the dragons ever came, during our first wars with Talinar. And if the dragons had not crossed the sea at once to attack Narinen, I doubt any of us would have made it there. That was their one mistake. They thought we had nowhere to hide. The men they left behind marched the length of Talor, sacking and burning, hunting and killing my people without mercy wherever they found them. For so their masters commanded them. The dragons did not want us as slaves. You see, they had not forgotten the past either.
“The road was hard. Sometimes we fought, sometimes we fled, but in the end we reached the sanctuary, where life proved harder still. For after the last war we believed there could never be another like it. In consequence the sanctuary was not prepared for a long occupation by so many. Nor could we grow our own food as you do here. We gleaned from ruined towns and farms. We hunted and fished. All at great risk of death, of capture, of discovery. That was twenty five years ago. And I have no idea how my people have fared since then. They sent me out with two comrades, Marek and Laindon, to find the sword and the bow.”
Evénn stopped. The afternoon shadows in the chamber seemed to close in around him, darkening his face and eyes.
“Three others we sent east to Telkar,” he continued. “I had entrusted the spear to him myself in the first years of my wandering, but he wouldn’t accept the sword and bow. He warned me that they should not all be in one place because evil would arise again – I remember how I looked at him in disbelief when he said that, and how he shook his head at me as if I were a fool for doing so.”
“ ‘Take them far from here,’ he said to me over his shoulder as he walked away with the spear in his hand, ‘Hide them. Tell no one where they are.’ ”
“So I crossed the sea and concealed the sword and bow in the far north of this land, where the Gray Mountains sink down into the plains you call the Fields of Winter. Twenty five years ago I returned, to seek again what I had wished lost forever. But ten centuries are a long time even for me. For many years my comrades and I searched through faceless wastes and bare hills, as I strove to remember the hiding places that the snows of a thousand winters had buried and changed. We found nothing but fading hopes; we had nothing but each other. Three years ago an avalanche in the Gray Mountains took my comrades from me, and I nearly gave up. But this year has been the warmest in decades, and even to the Fields of Winter spring came. As the snows fled and the grasses returned from their long sleep, I found the sword at last. And with it I found hope again.”
Evénn turned to the thick blue bundle lying on the table in front of Arden. With reverence he loosed the cords which bound it. Unfolding a flap on one end, he slowly unrolled it until it became clear that it held a single object, long and slender. Evénn glanced at Arden. He saw the Ranger’s eyes brimming with an eager light, and felt the weight of everyone’s gaze. Then he reached in, pulled out the sword, and faced the Masters. Even as he unsheathed it, the stained leather scabbard and the bindings of the hilt began crumbling away. Yet the sword itself looked new, untouched by time and the elements, immaculate after ten centuries entombed in ice and snow.
The afternoon light was gone from the chamber now, and in the twilight of firelit shadows a faint blue glow could be seen coursing along the edges of the blade, dimly illuminating the elf and the air around him. Evénn hefted the sword. On his face he wore a thoughtful look, like one trying to recall the weight and balance of a long neglected, but once familiar, tool. He held up the sword before him, running his palm down the flat of the blade to its point and back again, almost caressing it. All at once Evénn whirled about, brandishing the sword two handed high above his head; and as he sliced the air around him in swift, shining, elegant arcs, the glow of the blade grew steadily brighter until it filled the chamber with a light like starlight and moonlight.
And the sword seemed to sing, as if glad to be drawn again after so long. It sang not in words, but in a low, whirring hum, a voice all its own that spoke differently to each of those who heard it, reminding them of their homes and all the other dear things the sword had been forged to defend. Arden heard the sea and the morning breeze blowing across it; Jalonn the cry of a marsh bird from his youth beneath the moss hung trees of the south; Raynall the laughter of a raven haired girl to whom he written poems almost seventy years before. As the blade moved faster in Evénn’s hands and its flame grew brighter, the voice gained strength. Then he stopped as suddenly as he had begun. The voice fell silent at once, and sword’s light began to dim.
With one hand beneath the sword’s hilt and the other beneath its tip, Evénn held it out waist high before him for all to see, showing it to each table in turn. There, clearly visible among the other intricate designs, were words etched in letters which most of them found strange and exotic, almost familiar, though never before seen. Evénn laid the sword on the table before Raynall and the other Masters.
“The makers traced these words of power here for the ruin of the dragons,” Evénn said. “Who can read them?”
The Master of Books leaned forward. The words were fading with the glow of the sword.
“These are the first letters,” Keral said in the hushed voice of wonder. He bent closer to scrutinize the words. “So little written in these characters has come down to us, and the tongue is a form of elvish that was ancient before the dragons came. But I think I can make it out.”
Keral studied the words until no trace of them remained on the steel. For a moment more he pondered what he had read, then gave a quick nod of affirmation, and looked up.
“Do not speak the words aloud,” Evénn warned, “or the dragons will hear.”
“It is the sword of adamant,” said Keral. “If anyone doubted it.”
He spoke at first in so dreamy a whisper that, despite the stony quiet of the chamber, Arden could scarcely hear him. After a moment Keral began again more loudly, raising his eyes and quoting from the songs the words the makers said when they gave Evénn the sword:

Behold thy sword, edged in adamant, slayer of darkness,
A doom unto dragons, a bringer of light to the lands.

“Here is the first weapon,” Evénn said, “but we shall need more than one.”
“And what of them?” Jalonn asked. “You said you were searching for the bow as well, and that three of your people were sent for the spear.”
“Of the spear I know nothing. We had almost no means of sending a message to our people, and we could not risk the attempt. If all went well, they should have had the spear years ago, and be awaiting our long overdue return.”
“And the bow?” said Falimar, the young Master of the Bow.
“We never found it, but now I think I know where it is.”
“And where would that be?” Falimar said with a strange look on his face.
“Here among you, I think,” Evénn replied. “I believe it to be the bow Master Mahar carried against the black dragon, the same bow Arden and Jalonn brought back from Narinen.”
“What?” Arden stammered. He would have been surprised to learn that he had even seen the bow. The notion that he had rescued it from the Fall and wielded it was stunning. “The bow I brought...?”
“Yes, Arden,” Evénn said, smiling gently. “Until you told your tale last night I feared it was lost or, worse still, found by the enemy. I doubt any other bow, no matter how skilled or mighty the bowman, could have done the dragon any harm. A pity Mahar did not possess the knowledge to summon its full power. If he had, Mahar’s first arrow, which took the beast by surprise, would have killed him. Or many things might have been different.”
“But how did he get the bow, Evénn?” asked Arden. “I thought you’d hidden it.”
“I did, and set many spells to guard it. Mahar must have been meant to find it, but how he did I cannot say.”
“I believe I can tell you that part of the story,” said Falimar. “Until today I was unsure, but I have long guessed at this truth.”
“Nor have you been alone in this, Falimar,” said Raynall, and the other Masters nodded, “but perhaps we should send for the bow before you go on? Evénn will surely recognize it.”
“I will, Master Raynall,” the elf replied.
Raynall nodded to one of the apprentice Rangers who stood by the chamber door to carry messages for the Council and fulfill their other needs. As she saw Raynall’s gaze light upon her, the young woman’s eyes opened wide at the thought that she was being sent to fetch the bow of legend. At first she just stood there, awestruck. But when Raynall raised his eyebrows at this brief delay and Jalonn turned to add his own amused, but insistent, stare, the apprentice recovered herself and bowed.
“At once, Master Raynall.”
“You’ll find it in my rooms,” Falimar added. “The assistant master will show you.”
The apprentice bowed again and left the chamber. The hour was now growing late and outside the sun had sunk behind the Mountain of Stars above them. At a nod from Master Indushan, the other young Rangers set about lighting the lamps that hung above the tables, and began tending to the hearths. When all was done, they withdrew to their places near the door.
“Now, Master Falimar,” Raynall continued, “tell us of Mahar and the bow.”
“Thank you, Master Raynall. I didn’t know Master Mahar myself. He left the Valley to speak for the Rangers at the Council of Narinen several years before the Fall, when I was just a small boy. His tale came down to my predecessor, Raducar, who in turn told it to me.
“It was over fifty years ago when Mahar himself was young and had not yet come to us. He was from Caledon, as we all know, which lies at the far northern end of these Gray Mountains, where summer is rare and winter long. One day he and his brothers were out hunting for food to help their family make it through the coming winter. Near evening a storm came suddenly down upon them from the mountains and compelled them to seek refuge. By chance they discovered a cave quite close by. They found this odd, though, since they had often hunted in those woods before, and none of them had any memory of this cave. Yet there it was, and their need was great. So they did not question their good fortune.
“The hours crept slowly with the howl of the wind outside, and one by one Mahar’s brothers fell asleep around the fire. But not Mahar. A strange restlessness lay upon him. He felt there was something he had to do, but he could not remember what it was. Since he could not sleep, he tried to busy himself, thinking that in this way he might indirectly discover the thing he had forgotten. He groomed their horses, he checked on all their gear, he built up the fire when it began to burn low. He stood at the mouth of the cave, staring into the blind snowstorm. Then he lay down again. But it was no good. He could not sleep. Finally, he got up again, and, taking a branch from the fire to serve as a torch, he resolved to explore the cave.
“Mahar soon found that the cave extended much farther into the mountain than he and his brothers had thought. Narrow, winding ways and crevices led to a series of dark chambers whose roofs the light of his torch could not reach. Little thought did he give to where he was going or whence he had come. Then he entered a cavern that felt enormous. Ahead of him in the darkness the sight of something pale and glimmering in the light of his torch drew him on. It was a broad, flat stone on top of which lay a bow. The instant he saw it, his restlessness left him. He reached out and picked up the bow. To his amazement it was warm to the touch despite the cool air of the cavern. The bowstring was taught. The bow bent easily and smoothly. It seemed but newly made.
“With bow in hand he made his way back to his brothers, who were stunned to see him emerge from the cave into the bright daylight of a snow covered morning. They had awakened at dawn to find him gone. For the last hour they had been searching for him in the woods, but were perplexed when they discovered not a single footprint in the new snow. When he told them that, being unable to sleep, he had gone to explore the cave, they looked at him even more strangely. They had searched the cave first of all, they said, but it ended not two hundred feet back from its entrance. He assured them that this was not so. Held out the bow to them as proof, and told them where he had come upon it. Yet when he tried to show them the way, he could no longer find the path that he had followed only a few hours before. The cave ended where his brothers told him it did. Unsettled by this mystery, they gathered their gear, saddled their horses, and left the cave. They had a long ride home.
“Later that day, as they were passing through the woods near Caledon, Mahar’s eldest brother spotted a huge stag nearly invisible in the evening gloom beneath the trees, and he suggested that Mahar shoot it with his magic bow. The others laughed, but stung by his brother’s mockery, Mahar snatched an arrow from his quiver, drew and let go. In truth there was little chance he could hit it. The stag, far off and obscure, heard them, saw them, and sprang away. Yet the stag fell dead, his brothers silent, and Mahar’s family ate well for many days.
“And that soon proved the way of it. For, though Mahar was already an exceptional bowman, with this bow he defeated all the limits he had known. No matter how great the range or poor the conditions, the bow shot true. There was never a second arrow, never the slow tracking of the wounded prey, never the need to cut short its misery when he at last overtook it. This gratified his heart. His soul was gentle – as so many of you have told me. He did not hunt for the sport.
“But the bow troubled him as well. He hardly knew what to make of this thing, so alive in his hands, so warm to the touch even in the midst of winter, as if it had just spent a day in the summer sun. Once while climbing up a steep slope, Mahar lost his grip on it, and watched in horror as it clattered and bounced all the way down the scree. By the time the bow came to rest, its surface was badly scraped in several places. Yet the wood inside was as green as that of a living tree, and in a few days the gashes skinned over. Soon there was no trace of the wounds at all. The bow had healed itself.
“And so, since his father had died the winter before, he opened his heart to his grandfather. The old man told him that the bow must be some sort of sign, but of what he did not know. For some reason Mahar had been chosen to find it. But as useful as such a weapon was to his family, Mahar’s discovery of it could not be meant merely to make their lives easier and safer. There had to be more to it, and Mahar must leave his people to seek the answer, or to allow others to find it after him. When spring came, Mahar headed south.
“In time his path crossed ours, and he chose to become one of us. His search never ended, though, as Master Keral could tell you. For whenever Mahar was not away from the Valley he spent his nights in the library hoping that some forgotten book held his answers. From these studies he became a man of great learning, which he shared freely with all who were curious, and some who were not, but if he ever found what he sought he never said so. In all our records there was only one other bow like it – yours, Evénn, which had vanished with you a thousand years ago and half a world away – and no one seriously thought that the two were the same.
“But that was before the Fall, before Mahar met the dragon, before Arden told the Masters of their duel in fire and shadow at the world’s ending. Then the Masters began to guess at this truth. For what other bow could injure the beast? Yet how could it have come to the Gray Mountains and the Fields of Winter? We had no answers to these questions, until today. And now I wonder if Mahar, as he saw his first arrow pierce the dragon’s eye, finally understood what he held and why he had found it.”
Just then the young Ranger returned with the bow and began to approach the Masters with it.
“Give it to Evénn,” Keral said with a glance at Falimar, who nodded.
Evénn took the bow and thanked the young woman, who withdrew to her post by the door. The elf examined it carefully. It was over seven feet tall, fashioned of a single piece of plain, dark brown wood. The grip was about a third of the way up the bow, so that, when drawn, the upper curve swept elegantly back to the nock. Evénn strung the bow effortlessly, and smiled.
“Masters, this is the bow,” he said. “The description of the cave and its location was accurate. Mahar was clearly meant to find it there, or he could never have pierced the enchantments I wove to guard it. It may be that he had to find it first to keep it from the dragons, who have sent their own men to try to find the weapons, lest they be used against them once more. My companions and I often heard rumors of them, and sometimes they seemed to have news of us. We ran across them more than once.
“But in one such encounter three years ago Marek and Laindon lost their lives. That day the dragon’s men were scattered across the mountainside in small groups of a half dozen or so, and they were clearly searching for something – for us, we thought. For hours we managed to elude them, and night was not far off. Then a party of troopers spotted us, and some young fool of a trooper winded his horn to summon help. His commander struck the horn from his lips, but it was too late. As the echoes dimmed, we all looked at each other, wondering, but only for an instant. A great rumbling from the mountain answered the horn call. The snow came. Only I survived. A week or so later I found the cave, empty.
“But now, Masters, I know that my worst fears that day were unfounded. The dragons had not found the bow. So here we are, with two of the three ancient weapons. What shall we do with them?”
“Isn’t that obvious?” asked Arden abruptly, to a murmur of assent from many of the others. “Clearly the time has come.”
“The time has come, I would agree,” said Raynall, rising again from his seat, “but what we decide here will have consequences for others. We must consider them before we embark on a new attempt to slay the dragons, Arden.”
“Master Raynall,” Arden insisted, “if the time is now, there is only one decision we can rightly reach. The dragons must be destroyed or the peoples of the world will live forever in darkness. Whether Mahar was meant to find the bow, as Evénn has said, or whether he found it by chance, the path before us remains clear, if we take seriously our responsibilities as Rangers.”
Evénn opened his mouth to speak, but Jalonn spoke first.
“Arden, do not speak of responsibility to Master Raynall, who knew what it meant to be a Ranger before you were born. If years ago we abandoned our efforts to slay the dragons, we did so because making the attempt with no hope of success, and with only the certainty of consequences to our people, was surely not responsible. Our people were being killed and we were accomplishing nothing. Do not let your desire for vengeance shape your thoughts. It is an untrustworthy guide. You, above all, should grasp the malice of the dragons.”
“My brothers and sisters,” said Raynall calmly, “we all know what hangs in the balance here. Master Jalonn and Arden are both correct. There is only one choice open to us, but it is a hard choice: prosper or fail, we shall pay a terrible price. We remember the cost of the war thirty years ago, and the cost of our failure thereafter; and we know from the songs what happened in ages past. Suffering there was and suffering there will be, almost too dreadful to contemplate, but we must look down this path before we begin to walk it. For once embarked upon it cannot be abandoned. The dragons themselves will not allow it.
“Evénn has pointed out that the dragons worked as one thirty years ago, and many of us saw as much ourselves. When we tried to slay the red dragon, all of them struck back. They did not send their soldiers. They came themselves. Indeed, the black and the silver returned for across the sea to rejoin the two who were still here. From one end of this wide land to the other they burned and killed. It went on for months.
“Surrender did not matter. One day not long after the Night of Winter the four of them suddenly appeared outside Osenora, our second largest city, which had surrendered a year earlier. They commanded their men to withdraw at once, and seal the gates behind them as they marched out. From the walls the elders of the city pleaded with the dragons. Their efforts were as futile as ours. Indushan and I saw it all.”
Raynall stopped to look over at the Master of the Valley, but her eyes were lost in the past. She remembered well. The two of them had been camped deep in the woods near Osenora for some days, spying out the easiest way into the city, so they could meet those same elders in secret. When they came to the edge of the forest at first light, the dragons were already there. She and Raynall crept as close to the city as they dared, close enough to see the desperate gestures of the men on the walls as they begged for the lives of the innocent, close enough for their faces to be burned by the heat of the flames that consumed Osenora. Indushan had no doubt the dragons knew they were there, and let them go.
“If any Osenorans present in the city that day survived,” Raynall went on, turning his gaze back to Evénn, “no one has ever heard tell of them. What Indushan and I later learned was that the red dragon had come there directly from the annihilation of nearly twenty Rangers we had sent to slay him. Osenora was their answer to our impudence. For a hundred days after Osenora the slaughter went on. The dragons then had it proclaimed that their vengeance here was done for now. Their message was clear. With no means to harm them or defend our people from the flames, we could not continue our attacks.
“Yet now we have the means. I find I like that both more and less than not having them. For if the dragons murdered thousands when we failed, how many will they kill if we succeed? What if we slay the red dragon? Will the others still respond? Will they kill tens of thousands here? And what about the men and elves there, beyond the seas?
“We must weigh these questions well, because those we send down this path will not succeed alone. They will need shelter. They will need aid. Just as Evénn and his comrades did in those days that are so far off to us, lost in the stream of years but unforgotten. The more terrible and widespread the vengeance of the dragons is, the less help they may expect. For the fear the dragons wield over those they have crushed is enough to make brother betray brother. It is so even now all across this land. It has long been so. What do you say, Evénn? Yours is the greater experience.”
Evénn looked around the room. The others awaited his response. He thought again of that morning centuries before in the council of the elves. How alike the two meetings were. Despite all the differences between men and elves, the burden of their present cares was the same.
“Master Raynall, I do not know,” Evénn replied. “In the first war the other dragons didn’t strike back when we slew the first. Nor thereafter. Divided against each other, they each saw the death of the others as an opportunity to increase their own power. Only the last one, the black dragon, came out against us when the rest were slain, and he destroyed all in his path. Until we stopped him. This much you know.
“The second coming of the dragons has differed. They fought as one against us, denying the selfishness of their nature. But now let me tell you what you don’t know, since the seas and the world beyond them have been closed to you since Narinen fell. With your failure to slay the red dragon, they jointly punished the people of the world for your attempt. When they were done here, they turned first on us, whom they already had reason enough to hate, and then on others in other lands. We surmised someone had made an attempt against them. We thought it might be you, but how could we know?
“By the time my comrades and I set off for Narinen, the wrath of the dragons had cooled. The few reports we had said that each had withdrawn to the lands they claimed for themselves: the silver dragon to Elashandra, the black to Seraal and the east, and the golden to the endless grasslands in between, where the city of Belen rises like an island in the midst of an emerald sea. None of them has ever come here again, as you know, nor has the red dragon left Narinen. Yet to take this as a sign would be unwise.
“For once they learn they are vulnerable again, once they know the ancient weapons have been found, they will remember that they are mightier together. All of them will come if we kill the red dragon. Retribution will be swift and terrible. Of this the wise can have no doubt. For a while at least the darkness will grow darker.
“The war we are about to begin will be fought without truce or mercy. Some of your people will prefer the slavery to which they have grown accustomed to the agony that leads to freedom. They will curse us for what we do. Others, I think, will dare to defy death and the night. Yet whether fearful or brave, whether they rise up or kneel, your people will die in their thousands and tens of thousands. The dragons will make no distinction.
“And those of us who seek the dragons must be prepared to countenance these horrors. For – make no mistake – the dragons will be hunting us, and the blood of innocents will bait the trap they set. We will be given the bitter choice of watching while others pay the price for our actions, or of taking arms and dying for those we wish to defend. We must remain unseen and unknown. To choose otherwise risks the loss of all. If we fall and the weapons are taken, no time, no patience, no power ever in this world will overthrow them.
“Lastly, there is something else I must mention, though it is scarcely more than a feeling. Since the moment they first entered the world again I have felt that they and their power are somehow bound together in a way they were not before. I cannot explain it, and without understanding the nature of their bond, its consequences escape me. It is, as I said, only a feeling, but I do not doubt it is right. Whatever its nature, it bodes ill for us.”
“If what you say is true, do you still think the old weapons will work?” Indushan asked.
“Of that I am sure. Without knowing the spell to use the bow, Mahar still wounded the black dragon. That alone is proof.”
“But why didn’t the dragons recognize the bow that night, and take or destroy it once Mahar was dead?” Falimar asked. “According to Arden, Mahar simply leaned it against a column when he ran out of arrows.”
“Oh, they recognized the bow,” Evénn replied. “That much is certain. As for the rest, I have no answer. But Mahar should never have been able to find the bow in the first place. I wove veil upon veil of enchantments around it. Yet somehow he saw through them all. If the bow could reveal itself, or be revealed, to Mahar, the bow could also be concealed from the dragons. Remember, Telkar fashioned the bow from the wood of the Tree of Life, but even he does not understand all its properties.”
“You mean that’s not just a device of the poets?” said Falimar in a hushed voice.
“No,” Evénn responded, “though I know many over the centuries have thought so. You have seen the evidence of it yourself. On the coldest night, the bow is still warm to the touch. When harmed, it heals. This is because the wood of the Tree never dies, not even when separated from the Tree itself. The same holds true for the spear, which is also made of that wood. Thus they have great power against evil.”
Master Raynall lifted his hand to halt the discussion.
“Is the power of the bow and the sword enough for us to begin?” he asked.
“Yes, any of the weapons alone will suffice for a single dragon.”
“Then I put it to the Council,” Raynall continued, “that it is now time to abandon patience and take up arms again. I am glad I have lived to see this day, though the suffering that is to come will be dreadful. Yet it must be so. How else shall the day come again?
“So, if the Council agrees, let us begin with the beast at hand, the red dragon that waits in the Hall of Kings at Narinen. For thirty years he has reigned there with tooth and claw and fire. Our people have struggled beneath his yoke. If we slay him, many of our people will suffer, many will die, but in doing so we will show the peoples of the world that we begin by sacrificing ourselves, not others, to the wrath of the dragons. Arden?”
“Yes, Master Raynall.”
“As you have waited and long labored for this day, it is fitting that you ask the Council formally.”
“Thank you, Master,” said Arden and rose from his chair. His voice was firm and low, yet within he was trembling. His blood pounded in his temples. He put the question according to the simple formula used among them.
“Does the Council agree?”
It had always been the custom, when questions were put to the vote, for the members of the Council to take time to consider carefully and quietly before declaring their mind. At times the still and silent reflection lasted so long that the young Rangers waiting by the chamber doors thought the entire Council had fallen asleep. Today it was not so. Almost before the sound of Arden’s question died away, the answer came, with one voice.
“Aye,” they said.
“Do any disagree?” Arden asked in the proper form. “Now let your voice be heard. Now convince us of our error.”
Arden measured the full minute he let pass by the beats of his racing heart, by the slow deep breaths he drew as he tried to resist both the fear that someone would oppose and the exhilaration of impending success. But he surveyed the room and saw only looks of resolution, some grim, some almost joyous. No voice of denial spoke; no diffident foot scraped the floor. They were waiting for him to speak.
“We are agreed then,” he said finally, with one last glance around the tables. His eyes came to rest on Raynall, who smiled upon him, but seemed to be expecting something more of him. Arden broke into a wry smile.
“May god guide our hearts and our hands,” Arden said, completing the formula.
Raynall stood as Arden finished. The rest followed out of respect. The Master then addressed them.
“This concludes the Council for today. Let us meet again tomorrow to consider the best way to undertake this task, and whom we shall send to attempt it. Until that is resolved, do not discuss these proceedings. Tomorrow evening at the common meal, I shall inform the Rangers.”
He bowed to those assembled and left the room followed by the other Masters and members of the Council. Outside night had fallen. The young Rangers on duty went around the room extinguishing the lamps above the tables and shuttering the windows. Then they, too, withdrew. The fire on the hearth and lamps in the corridor gave the room its only light. As they had hours earlier, Evénn and Arden stood alone. In his right hand Evénn still held the bow. Arden looked at it in wonder, to think that he had saved it from the dragons and brought it here all those years before, never knowing he carried this precious treasure and the hope of his people. The sword lay on the Masters’ table where Evénn had laid it. He retrieved it, then turned to Arden and held out the bow.
“You will be needing this. Yours was lost, as I recall.”
Surprised by the offer, Arden stared at him, as he stood there half in light and darkness.
“The bow is yours. I cannot accept it,” Arden said.
“Someone must carry it. I cannot wield both bow and sword at once, and both will be needed. You know that it was so before.”
“So the songs tell us,” Arden said quietly, “but why me? The bow requires faith. I have little.”
“Why not you? And you have already wielded it.”
“Against a soldier, not a dragon, and I did not know what I held.”
“Do you believe that I have the faith to wield it against the dragons?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And what of Mahar? Do you believe he had the faith?”
“Yes, but –”

“Then believe in our faith if that is all you can do. That will be enough of a beginning.”
“But –”
“You keep using that word.”
“I don’t know how to use it.”
“I shall teach you all you need.”
“Evénn,” Arden protested.
“Arden, Mahar should not have been able to find the bow, yet he did. You were there at precisely the right moment to preserve the bow, and you survived to do so when all others perished. Something more than chance is at work here. The bow is yours. Now take it.”
With that the elf thrust the bow into Arden’s unwilling hands and started for the door. The Ranger followed, thinking how smooth and warm the wood felt in his hands.

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