03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 9.1

Nine

At six the next morning Arden joined Master Jalonn and Evénn on the fencing floor. The elf was still carrying the sword he had worn since they met. The sword of adamant was nowhere to be seen. Their training began almost at once, and lasted for three hours with almost no respite. Arden fared better against Jalonn than the last time they had crossed swords nearly a decade ago. Those were years Arden had spent mostly by himself in places beyond all aid, where either a Ranger’s sword was swift and his sword-arm strong, or death came with equal swiftness. Each encounter with the dragon’s men or the hunters who tracked Rangers for a price further honed the skills he had learned from Jalonn and Raynall, and in the hundred battles he had fought since boyhood.
Now that he was fighting with a cooler head, Arden also did well against Evénn. Yet still the elf moved more quickly than he could guess. Nearly every opening that appeared in his guard closed before Arden could exploit it; and those that did not proved to be traps laid for the unwary. But it was in defending himself against Evénn’s sudden strokes from uncanny directions that he learned the most, especially when they cost him bruises delivered by the flat of Evénn’s blade or its dull edge. All the while Jalonn circled them slowly, studying them as they fought. At every bruise he laughed, then laughed again when Arden scowled his way.
When it was Arden’s turn to watch the elf and the Master fence, he began to pick out some of the movements that led through a series of blows to the seemingly impossible strokes Evénn made, all of which Jalonn managed to parry. But Evénn was still not revealing his full strength and speed. At the farm he had cut down three men more than a dozen feet apart in the space of a final, few heartbeats; and Arden had survived his own duel with him only because Evénn wished it so. Seeing his power curbed now, as before he had seen it given rein, made him think of the black dragon as he was the night of the Fall, now sudden and bloody, now still as a cat. For them both, for Evénn and for the dragon, there was in the stillness of their power a greater terror. Arden wondered if Jalonn, if the other Rangers practicing and watching in the chamber, also perceived it.
As the match came to an end, he shook off the thought and rose to join them. Together the three of them discussed their morning’s practice in detail, making suggestions to each other and offering criticisms. For what they were about to attempt, every moment of this training was crucial. To kill the dragons, they needed to survive to reach them; and their path at some point would surely lead through a hedge of swords.
At length they were done, and in good time to wash and change for that morning’s meeting of the Council. They did not speak of it among themselves even when alone. Arden did his best to avoid contact with other Rangers, lest his eyes or expression betray the fierce excitement he felt. Last night he had withdrawn to his room directly after the common meal for the same reason. He could feel the tension in the room even more strongly than he had the night before. It was the excitement that arises from the feeling that hope long deferred is about to be gratified. Over the years he had been so forceful in urging the Masters to reconsider their decision that he feared he could not now conceal from the Rangers seated around him the near joy that blazed within him.
Today’s meeting would be more brief. To Arden it seemed that everyone present was relieved to be in the Council Chamber again, where they could discuss the dragons openly. For outside the chamber, throughout the many halls and rooms of the citadel and across the broad valley, the keen silence of the last two nights had settled into a brooding scrutiny, like a dense fog through which a shipmaster must steer for safety and home. In the Hall of Fire many of the older Rangers, those of an age to remember the time before the Fall, were sitting quietly waiting for an answer. Others, younger, had joined them in their vigil. Still others immersed themselves in activity to pass their last hours of waiting. They stayed, or came and went, as their duties allowed. Those who had to leave the Valley that day did so most reluctantly. The answer would come today, they knew, and, though all were confident of what it would be, yet they had waited so long that the final hours of their patience seemed longer and slower than all the years which had gone before.
Within the Council Chamber, Jalonn and Falimar proposed that, as Master Raynall had suggested, they begin with the red dragon of the City of Narinen. To this all assented at once. They argued, too, that stealth would avail them more than force to get close to the beast, and so any party they sent should be small. Keral supported this, pointing out that in the first war Evénn also had but a few companions; only in the case of the last dragon had men and elves marshaled armies to support them, since the last dragon had come forth to meet them with his own. Evénn agreed that this was so, and the Council deemed it best that there be no more than five or six companions. More would risk drawing the eyes of the dragon and his men.
Next the apprentices spread a great map before them on the Masters’ table, and they gave thought to the companions’ route to the City. By the shortest path – northeast across the Plains of Rheith to the Great Road, then east over the Coastal Range to Narinen – the journey was no less than a thousand miles, a month or more on horseback in high summer, travelling openly, but their need for secrecy denied this route to them. Various routes were considered, all following tree lined rivers down to the Rheith, then back up the valley of one of the many tributaries which flowed down from the western slope of the Coastal Range; once they reached the foothills they would move northwards until they came to a pass leading down into the coastal plain near the City.
Arden and others who knew those mountains objected. Such a route would force the party to travel north along the western slope of the Coastal Range in winter, a difficult task even without the need to force their way through a pass likely to be snowbound by the time they arrived.
“What do you propose then?” asked Orom, the Master of Horses, between puffs on his pipe. Several of those present stared at him in surprise. Orom had little to say in open council.
“Well,” said Arden, bending over the map as if to think, “first north through the forest until we reach the South Deer, east between the South and North Deer until they merge to form the Great Deer, then down to the Rheith and across it. That way we can travel nearly halfway across the Plains of Rheith and stay hidden within the Forest of Tasar. Once across we move through the hill country down to the Valané, which will lead us up into the Green Hills just north of Prisca. From there it’s not far to the City.”
He spoke so rapidly and his hand traced the route across the map so decisively, that Jalonn began to chuckle and Raynall looked amused, like men who realized they should have expected Arden to be prepared for this day.
“You always studied maps quite closely, Arden,” Keral said, remembering the younger man’s days as an apprentice, and then he smiled, “but you’ve clearly given this much thought.”
“I’ve had a long time to do so,” Arden replied dryly.
“But to cross the Rheith here,” Master Orom put in, tapping the map with the stem of his pipe, “will be very dangerous in early winter.”
“It can be done.”
“I know, Arden. I’ve done it.”
“As have I, Master Orom. The crossing will be difficult and dangerous, but it will also be unexpected. And the river Valané will also lead us directly to a region of the Green Hills I know well. I often hunted there with my father and brother as a boy.”
Orom regarded the map a moment more. A wisp of smoke drifted from the corner of his mouth. He grunted.
“Try not to drown,” he said.
With the size of the party and its route to Narinen settled, Master Raynall said he would dispatch messengers to apprise the Rangers abroad of their decision, and also to inform the bands of Rangers in the Coastal Range that a party would be coming east. News would be requested of them on the enemy’s strength and movements, and scouts sent out to spy on the cities, towns, and roads of the plains. All this would take well over a month. So they could not depart before the final gray weeks of autumn. The interval would be devoted to training, study, and to choosing the companions of Arden and Evénn.
Raynall had intended to announce the Council’s decision at the common meal that evening, but as soon as they rose to leave the chamber and the apprentices opened the doors it became clear their news would not wait until then. For Rangers old and young filled the broad hall outside. Silently they had gathered there as the morning wore on, and silently they stood waiting in long lines which ran down the hall. As the Masters emerged, the Rangers made way for them out of respect. No words needed saying. Raynall and the others understood what was being asked of them, and, although they took their authority seriously, they also respected those who followed them and had granted them that authority.
“We shall assemble in the Hall of Feasts,” Raynall quietly said, and proceeded down the corridor to the stairs, accompanied by the Masters and the Council; Evénn and Arden came last of all. As they passed, the Rangers bowed their heads and put their hands over their hearts in a gesture of thanks. Then they turned to follow.
In the Hall of Feasts Raynall mounted the dais before them. He beckoned to them to be seated, but one Ranger stepped forward, Hansarad, one of the oldest and most respected, and he spoke.
“Master Raynall, we would prefer to receive these tidings on our feet. Long have we waited to hear what we believe you are about to say. We stand ready to do what is required. Command us.”
“My friends,” Raynall answered, “hear now the decision of the Council. The dragonslayer has returned and brings with him the sword of adamant. We have also learned that the bow of Mahar is the bow Evénn carried against the dragons long ago. By god’s grace, Mahar found it where Evénn had hidden it, and Arden rescued it from the Fall. Thus we have two of the three ancient weapons, and Evénn says that even now his people should have the third. Armed thus, we may have hope against the darkness. We shall send forth a party to slay the red dragon.
“This errand will not be an easy one. It was not so long ago, and will not be so now. So the songs teach us. The consequences to our people and to others elsewhere will be dire. Freedom is dearly bought. Not before the last dragon is slain will we see an end to their retribution. For a while success may seem more costly than failure; but if we succeed, we will have met our responsibilities as Rangers even if we all perish.”
Unafraid, they all looked back at him. Again Hansarad spoke, “stand or fall, we will be worthy of the trust given to us. We shall do deeds worthy of song even if none survive to hear them.”
“My dear friend, your deeds are already worthy of song, and every one of us knows them,” Raynall said. “First messengers and scouts will set out to prepare the way. Then we must find companions for Evénn and Arden. They cannot undertake this task alone.”
“Name whom you will, Master,” Hansarad responded. “We will not refuse.”
“Aye,” the Rangers said as one.
“Then the Masters and I will choose among you. Tonight we’ll name the scouts and messengers, and tomorrow they will depart.”
“We await your word, Master Raynall,” Hansarad replied, bowed with a courtly flourish that brought a smile to many faces, and strode from the room. The other Rangers bowed as well, more formally, and followed him out.
As the hall emptied, Raynall told the Masters and the Council that they would meet again in one hour to draw up the list of messengers and scouts. Before long only he and Evénn were left, sitting on the edge of the dais not saying a word. They were listening. The citadel was awakening like a sudden spring. The hushed voices of three decades were speaking out loud. A different laughter came to their ears.
“If nothing else,” Raynall said with evident pleasure, “we have lifted a burden from their hearts.”
“For a time,” Evénn was about to say when the wolf stepped into the room, spotted him, and came trotting over. He, too, was in high spirits, playful and happy. Evénn rested a hand on his head, and scratched him behind one ear.
“To be sure,” Evénn said instead, “this is more the way I remember it here.”
“Those were green days, Evénn, and not just because I was young and foolish. The endless wars with Seraal were over, and we Rangers stood high in the people’s esteem. Narinen dreamed in peace and plenty.”
Raynall stopped and sighed, with pleasure at first, but then his clear eyes clouded over with regret as his thoughts moved on. The wolf went over to him, and gently nudged the back of Raynall’s hand with his nose.
“My friend,” Evénn said, “I have seen the ruins of Osenora, and the wasted fields of Sharilas, and two dozen other graveyards the dragons left behind them. I remember the terror burning in men’s eyes when they spoke of the dragons’ wrath, and tried to number the dead with their tears. The decision you made – to humble your pride and save the lives of your people – was the wisest you could have made.”
“It was the dragons that humbled our pride. We merely learned the lesson they taught us.”
“Not all would have.”
“Not all did, at least not a first. After Osenora there were sessions of the Council so full of discord that we feared it would break us. In the end, I think, it was only that fear which saved us. Only a few of Narinen’s soldiers survived the slaughter of the armies. Our cities were ruined or in chains. Our leaders’ heads adorned their walls. We alone remained. And if we were lost, what then?”
“Fear has its uses. Like pain, it is a warning we should sometimes heed.”
“Indeed,” Raynall replied, and shook his head, laughing quietly.
“What is it?”
“Of course, a few weeks later Jalonn and Arden showed up, with the bow.”
“It would have done you little good. Without the proper spells – ”
“I know, we would have met the same fate as Mahar, and more of our people would have died. That’s why we never sought to use it, and locked it away in Raducar’s rooms. But tell me something, Evénn.”
“Anything, old friend.”
“When you came to Narinen, we could have aided you in your search. Why did you never ask for our help?”
“My comrades and I considered it,” Evénn said, “but in the end we decided it was too dangerous. Our best hope lay in being even more invisible than you were. The eyes of the dragons see many things, and fear multiplies them, as men learn to spy on one another for gain or to atone for their own transgressions. More than a few searching would have drawn those eyes to the north, precisely where we did not want them. As it was, we learned in time that the red dragon’s men were searching, too. We did not know of course that the bow had been found, and that the dragons knew it.”
“They searched throughout the land, not just in the north,” replied Raynall. “Most of us believed they were looking for us, for this Valley, as no doubt they were. Master Raducar, however, who was always convinced that that the bow was yours, felt certain they were searching for it, too.”
Evénn nodded, considering all they had said.
“Well, it’s time we began,” Raynall said, and stood just as two apprentices came in to escort them back to the Council Chamber.



The next morning four dozen Rangers rode from the Valley in different directions. Hawks flew off with messages for the outposts across the plains to the east. Arden also joined Evénn and Jalonn in the fencing room again. He brought with him an even warmer passion for the training than he had shown yesterday. Not a week passed before Jalonn remarked to Evénn that Arden’s skills were becoming ever finer.
“Such is the power of wrath and desire,” Evénn answered.
They quickly fell into a regimen of training. Four hours with swords in the morning, four in the afternoon with the bow, for which Jalonn and Falimar also joined them. The lightness and flexibility of the legendary bow, and its astonishing range and accuracy, amazed all three of the men, even Master Falimar, who, though the bow had been in his care for some years now, had never used it before. Despite the hours he had spent examining it and retracing Mahar’s steps through volumes of ancient history and the oldest texts of the Songs of Evénn, his awe of what he felt the bow might be had stayed his hand.
On an afternoon late in the second week of their training, after Falimar struck a target so small and distant that he had scoffed at Evénn’s suggestion of it, he turned to the elf.
“Evénn,” he said. “I am a good bowman, but I don’t have the eyes of an elf. I should never have been able to hit that mark. Yet with this bow it was easy. It has been the same with every mark we have set ourselves. The skills of Jalonn and Arden I also know well, and we have all shot with an accuracy that is beyond us. When I aim the bow, I feel, almost, that the bow is aware of what I want to do and that it aids me. This sounds like madness, I know, but –”
“It does not,” Jalonn interrupted. “I have thought the same thing.”
“You’re right. I agree,” Arden added, remembering the perfect shot he had made without thinking in the garden of Sorrow. He had simply seen his target and struck it.
“Tell me, Evénn, how can this be?” Falimar asked. “Is it, as I think, because the bow is made of the wood of the Tree of Life? If so, how can the wood of such a tree can be used to kill? It does not seem to follow.”
“I cannot explain completely, Falimar,” Evénn said, “because I do not fully understand it myself. I don’t know if even Telkar could. But everyone who wields the bow feels the same as you. Somehow the bow is aware of the purposes of the one holding it, and aids them if they intend good. Evil the bow will not assist.”
“I do not understand that at all, Evénn,” said Arden. “Isn’t the bow a tool like any other we use, good or bad according only to our intentions?”
“No, it is not” Evénn said emphatically. “The bow is wholly good, unlike any other tool which man or elf may wield, except for the spear, since that is also made of the Tree. When Mahar used the bow to hunt for food, it aided him because his intentions were good. Had he sought to kill merely for pleasure, he would have missed his mark no matter how close he was. That goodness is part of the wood of the bow. It gives the bow its power. Else, the dragons could not be slain by it.”
“Then the bow judges the bowman as well as his target,” Jalonn said.
“Yes, it does.”
“The bow or someone else,” Falimar said.
“But with this bow,” Arden protested, “I slew a man who was running away. How can that be good?”
“Had he not already done evil?” asked Jalonn. “And if you had let him escape, would he not have returned with others to kill you.”
“But I killed him in wrath. I killed him in vengeance. I killed him in hatred. And his back was to me.”
“The bow will not harm the innocent, Arden,” Evénn said.
Arden pondered this for a moment, frustrated.
“Then the bow judges with a clarity I do not possess,” he said. Then he pointed across the Valley towards the gorge. “Out there, beyond the Valley, I see many men and women, and in disguise I have spoken with many others. There are those who join the dragon’s men out of fear for themselves and their families, fear of what would happen if they refused to serve the dragon. There are even some who tell themselves that in the dragon’s service they will be able to lighten the yoke of oppression and perhaps do some good for their town. I fight these men when I have to do so, but they are just that – men, like us – who act out of fear and necessity, or out of misconceptions. Not all serve the dragon because they are evil.”
“Evil done in fear is evil still, Arden, as is evil done in an attempt to do good,” Evénn said. “Necessity is an excuse our fears provide. It allows us to avoid facing the much more difficult choices before us that we do not wish to make. Between the men you describe and the men who serve the dragon willingly, there is indeed a great gulf, but their actions are nevertheless evil and they are answerable for them. As we are all answerable for our actions.”
“I still do not see how this bow can judge among us, no matter what wood it is made from,” Arden answered.
“I don’t know either, Arden, but if you are to bear and wield it against the dragons, you must have faith that it can. Master Falimar, would you give me the bow for a moment?”
Evénn took the bow and fitted an arrow to it. He looked down the Valley.
“There,” he said, gesturing with his head, “you see that sparrow above the oaks?”
They followed his gaze and saw a tiny, dark bird flying along the tree tops, its course rising and falling as it beat its wings, rested, then beat them again. It was nearly three hundred yards away, visible to the Rangers as a tiny dark spot and only when it rose above the tree tops.
“Let us see how the bow judges the sparrow,” said Evénn and drew the bow. He took aim. Then without warning he swung around and pointed the bow directly at Arden not ten feet away. He loosed the arrow. But it did not fly straight or true. It passed harmlessly over Arden’s shoulder and tumbled to the earth not far behind him. Evénn had moved so quickly that none of them could react.
“As I said, Arden, the bow will not harm the innocent. How else could I have missed you? You must have faith.”
He handed Arden the bow and walked off to retrieve their spent arrows. Falimar, eyes wide in surprise, smiled in disbelief at the other two, then went after Evénn.
Arden stood by, unable to say anything. There had been an instant of surprise and fear as the elf aimed at him and released the arrow, then shock as the arrow missed him. Jalonn came and stood beside him, arms folded across his chest. They watched Falimar and Evénn collecting the arrows.
“An intriguing lesson,” Jalonn said at last.
Arden gave him an evil look. “Yes” was all he could say.
“Where did you find him?”
“I didn’t. He found me.”
“Good thing, that.”

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