Word of Evénn’s lesson spread quickly through the Valley. Others practicing nearby had witnessed it. Nor did it escape the notice of the Rangers on guard in that area. Rumor had it that, when the report of it reached Master Raynall soon afterwards in his study, he had thrown back his head and laughed. He wished only, he said, that he could have seen the looks on the Rangers’ faces, for seldom could an outsider teach Rangers such a lesson.
In the following days children and some of the younger apprentices began approaching Evénn when they saw him walking about the Valley with Arden, Argos, and the wolf. The apprentices he sent on their way, back to their instructors. The children, he welcomed; and often when not training with Arden or exploring the library, he was to be found sitting beneath a tree or in the morning sun, surrounded by children who plied him with questions, or begged him for stories, or even hesitantly ventured to pet the wolf that sat beside him.
Each day he told them tales of ages past and kingdoms that were no more; of wondrous creatures he had seen in distant lands; of flowers whose hue and fragrance delighted the senses and cheered the heart; and of trees so tall that their crowns stood wreathed in cloud, and so old that even elves like him were as children beside them. He told them of storms at sea and snow upon the mountains; of great desert winds whirling with dust a mile high; and of dew covered grass in mornings of ancient summers. He spoke of kings and queens of elves and men that he had known, of healers, of clowns, of smiths, of farmers, of poets. And in his laughter and smile and the sparkle of the sunlight in his eyes he made the myth and history, the history and myth, of his five thousand years live for them as it did for him. The children hung wide eyed upon his words and ran shouting to greet him as soon as they saw him. He stroked their hair or held their hands and soon called them each by name. To see him with the children lightened many hearts and made even the oldest and most dour Rangers smile before they turned back to their labors.
Early one afternoon three weeks after the meeting of the Council, as he sat in a sunny patch of grass, telling the children around him a story of his own youth, he noticed a Ranger walking towards them. He was not as tall as most, but his shoulders were broad and his chest deep. His blue eyes shone brightly from a tanned face surrounded by light brown hair. He scanned the circle of children. When he spotted the two he was seeking – Dorlas, a boy of about eight summers, and his sister Rinn, who insisted she was almost seven – he sat down behind them outside the circle. He grinned at Evénn and put a finger to his lips. While Evénn finished his story, he watched the Ranger’s attention constantly shift from him to his children and back again. The pleasure he took in their laughter was evident in his broad smile and shining eyes. Before long a hound trotted up and lay down beside him. The Ranger threw an arm over his shoulders, then rolled him onto his back to scratch his belly.
Evénn recalled seeing him frequently, instructing the young in riding and giving more advanced training to the apprentices. He had also seen him practicing his swordsmanship in the fencing room, and almost every day at the Time of Reflection. He remembered his rapt attention to Arden’s tale of the Fall, especially when Arden had spoken of the girl he called Sorrow; and the two had exchanged a meaningful glance once Arden finished. Clearly there was some connection between them that had begun before they were Rangers.
When his tale was done, Evénn told the children he would see them tomorrow if he could. The children pleaded loudly for just one more story, but with a laugh he dismissed them until the next day, and reluctantly they began to disperse. As he got up to leave himself, he saw the Ranger on one knee speaking to his children. Both were blue eyed and sandy haired like their father. The girl and boy waved to Evénn, then hugged the Ranger and said goodbye to him. They ran off together, the hound, larger than them both, loping along beside them, but the Ranger stayed behind waiting for the last of the other children to leave. Then he approached Evénn, a smile still on his face.
“My children are quite fond of you and your stories,” he said. “Even now they are rushing home to repeat them to their mother. Just last night Dorlas informed me that someday he will tell his grandchildren how, when he was just a lad himself, he met Evénn, the dragonslayer.”
“Children are the greatest blessing the world affords us,” he said.
“That is true,” the Ranger replied, and held out his hand. “My name is Niall, and I was hoping we might have a word while you’re on your way to the archery ground.”
“Yes, of course,” said Evénn, taking Niall’s hand. “I remember you from the day Arden and I arrived. You greeted us, you and another Ranger.”
“Yes. That was Agarwen. She’s one of the Guardians of the Forest, and has been away for some weeks now.”
“You are Arden’s friends, I recall her saying.”
“We know him as well as anyone, I suppose,” said Niall. “We have spent much time around him, you might say. He and I often served together as young Rangers; and Agarwen was Arden’s apprentice. They spent three years together over the mountains to the west.”
“Yet you knew him before.”
Niall looked at Evénn in some surprise.
“Arden told you that?”
“No, but you both share the same accent, that of the educated folk of the City. You are close to each other in age, and I noticed the look he gave you when he finished telling of the Fall.”
“As if you would understand.”
“You see much, Evénn, but I am not the only Ranger from the City of Narinen. It may not seem so to an elf, but thirty years ago the seven years that lie between us made a great difference. I knew him by sight, little more.”
“But that was not the way he looked at you,” thought Evénn, and he said, “but you do understand.”
“Of course I do. Narinen was my home and my family’s for many generations, as it was for Arden’s. To us it was more than the chief city of the land. More than our country died that day.”
“He sees in you, then, a link to what was lost?”
“Or so I guess. I don’t know. We’ve never spoken of Narinen.”
“No. Except when he tells of the Fall, Arden says little of those days.”
“That I have observed as well. Now, what of you, Niall? What do you wish to discuss with me?”
“I would like to go with you and Arden. So would Agarwen,” Niall said.
Evénn nodded as if he had been expecting this, and kept walking. Niall wondered if he should say something more, but decided against it. There was nothing more for him to say.
“Do you know what Master Raynall said to me last night?” Evénn asked after a few minutes.
“No,” replied Niall, catching the sly look that went with the question.
“‘A moment if you will, Master,’ they all say when they catch me in the corridor or knock on my study door late at night – the light seems to draw the younger ones like moths – and then they spend a quarter hour talking to me as if I hadn’t known them all their lives.”
“Well, I’ll admit I’ve spoken to him,” Niall said, laughing at Evénn’s imitation of a weary, exasperated Raynall. “It was in the morning, though. But I thought I would speak to you as well.”
“And what do you think?”
“I think the journey will be perilous,”
“We are accustomed to that.”
Evénn stopped and took Niall by the shoulder. His eyes were cold with menace.
“But this will be a greater peril than you have ever known, Niall. The dragons cannot just kill your body. They are not merely creatures of bone and talon and flame, as the songs taught you. They are spirits of overwhelming might. They can enslave your soul if they so desire and if you are not cautious. If you converse with them or meet their gaze, they can easily enchant you. Then all the suffering you have lived through these last thirty years, and all the horror of which you already know them to be capable, will be as nothing beside the nightmare in which you walk. If they bid you slay your friends, or your wife, or even your beautiful Dorlas and Rinn, you will do so, but even as you do you will know what you are doing and be unable to stop yourself. To dare the dragons entails dreadful risk. Not even the strongest of us are safe from them.”
“You speak of Conaras.”
“Yes, of Conaras, my friend. Conn we called him then. He was a mighty warrior and enchanter, even among elves. We were friends for over two thousand years, and I never had a friend more faithful or true. We stood together against the dragons from the beginning, but the black dragon caught him unawares one night as he walked in the Forest of Willow and laid a spell on him. At the dragon’s bidding he returned home and slew his wife and four children as they came running from their home to greet him. Covered in their blood he then went to my home, where he killed my wife, my two children, and my mother before we could overtake him. No counter-spell could release him. We all tried, my brother, my father, and I. In the end my brother had no choice but to kill him. All the while we could see in his eyes that he knew what he had done. No words can tell of the anguish we saw there. No song could do it justice, that injustice which he committed, knowing but unwilling. With his last breath he thanked us.”
All his life Niall had known of the bewitchment of Conaras, but no art of a singer or poet could have prepared him to hear the woe in the voice of the father of the slaughtered children, the husband and son of the wife and mother slain, and the friend of the unwilling murderer. It made him shudder. The pain of this loss so lived and breathed in the elf after a thousand years that Niall saw him with new eyes. No longer the serene elf lord who had dwelt for centuries in a monastery and each day joined the Rangers in meditation, no longer the playful, learned storyteller who enthralled wide eyed children and led them in mirth and wonder, no longer the mighty warrior who emerged from the darkness of legend to bring hope. At this moment the dragonslayer was no more than Niall was, a father, a husband, a friend. But even as Niall’s heart mourned, he closed his eyes to find a stronger resolve within, to dare as much as Evénn had to deliver them all from the dragons.
“Are you prepared to risk that?” Evénn said.
Niall opened his eyes and saw again the old Evénn, now composed and peaceful once more, his grief subdued for now.
“I am. For what hope can my children have if I am not? I will face it for them, and for all the other children. And Arden is my friend. In the days to come, we shall all stand in need of friends.”
“Well said,” Evénn quietly replied, a smile crossing his face. “What of your friend, Agarwen?”
“In this we are of one mind.”
“If not chosen, you will follow?” Evénn asked, but it was not a question.
Niall answered with only a smile. Evénn laughed to himself, as if prompted by memory.
“Then I think you shall come. Join us tomorrow in the fencing room.”
“I shall speak to Master Raynall this evening. She will be recalled.
“Thank you, Evénn.”
“This is no favor I do you, Niall. We may be grateful to god in the end if we survive. One who wakes in the night from a terrible dream may thank heaven in the morning that it was not real, but he is not grateful for the dream.”
“Then we shall save our thanks for the coming of the morning.”
“Indeed,” said Evénn, but as he turned to go he spoke once again. “Your children are beautiful, Niall.”
“For that, I will thank you, Evénn.”
“For that, you are welcome.”
Then they parted and the next morning met again. Arden welcomed Niall and said he was glad that he would be joining them. Since they would be seeking the red dragon first, another Ranger familiar with the east coast and the City would be a great benefit. More than that he did not say, but he smiled each morning at Niall’s arrival. Now that there were four of them the training became more intense and more like real combat. Every half hour they switched fencing partners so each could learn from the others.
Master Raynall had also approved Evénn’s choice of Niall and Agarwen both, and a messenger rode off that first morning to summon her back. It was late in the afternoon of the next day that Agarwen entered the Valley in haste, galloping Bufo, her horse, straight to the archery range. While Niall was shooting under Evénn and Falimar’s instruction, Arden and Jalonn stood by and watched Agarwen approach. She reined in her horse and leaped from the saddle. Her wolfhound, Rana, came running up behind her, to be gladly met by Evénn’s wolf and the other hounds. Beneath its tan, her face was flushed from her ride and her brown eyes shone with excitement. She was beaming.
“We weren’t leaving just yet, you know,” Arden said. “In fact it will probably be some weeks before we go.”
“Unless of course she has already found us a dragon,” Jalonn added, “and it has chased her back here. Arden, perhaps you’d better inform Niall of this, since he has the bow at the moment.”
“And I thought you older Rangers were all supposed to be grim and sober,” Agarwen answered them with a laugh. “Yet here I find you joking like schoolboys.”
“Was I joking?” Jalonn replied, cocking an eyebrow.
“I simply wanted to get a quick start on my training,” she said.
“Then you should take your turn with the bow now that mine is done,” Niall said as he came up to her. Evénn and Falimar were walking off down the range. Agarwen took the bow from Niall and examined it.
“So this is really the bow?” she asked.
“It is,” Niall answered.
“And we had it all the time?”
“Not quite all the time,” Niall said, “but for about the last fifty years.”
“Nonetheless,” she said absently, studying the bow, tracing its curves and smooth surfaces. “It is warm to the touch, and the afternoon’s so cool. Surely the hand of god guided Mahar the night he found it.” She looked up and smiled. “It is a good omen.”
“Omens do not slay dragons, however,” Jalonn said in a low voice, his head down and eyes glinting from beneath his brows. The faintest smile was on his face.
“But the bow will,” Agarwen said.
“Aye,” he said, now in a whisper scarcely to be heard. He then lifted his head and raised his eyebrows as if he expected something more of her.
“And the sword.”
“Yes, and we shall need them both, and more, if this omen of yours is to prove more than a might-have-been.”
“The omen is a sign of hope, is all I meant, Master Jalonn,” Agarwen responded.
“I know, and I am glad of it. Hope we need. It is long since we had much of that. Faith we also need. Yet Master Mahar had faith and the bow. Even together they were not enough. Arden saw his faith and his skill with bow; and he saw him die.”
“He did not know the proper enchantments,” Arden said.
“My point exactly. He did not have all the weapons he needed. We must, or we shall also fail. Now that we are all gathered, we must begin our training in earnest. Agarwen, you will begin your practice with the bow once Master Falimar and Evénn return. Tomorrow morning you will join us on the fencing floor.”
“Yes, Master Jalonn.”
“And you, Arden, will come with me now. It is time you began attending the Time of Reflection once more. Too long have you been absent.”
“Yes, Master Jalonn,” said Arden, but his reluctance did not escape Jalonn.
“The elf said you must have faith to wield the bow, did he not? You can begin by showing some.”
“And if I have doubts?”
“Doubts are fine. God expects doubt. But if you bring the body, the mind will often follow. So, too, the soul.”
“Strongbow had faith.”
“But, as you just said, he lacked the knowledge to use the bow effectively. And you saw him wound the dragon even without them. Such was his skill and his faith, even in his ignorance. Spells are more potent if you believe in god’s power to realize them. You have waited so long for this, Arden. Why would you refuse any step that will make our errand us easier?”
“I wouldn’t –”
“Then do this. A sword must be sharp if it is to cut.”
“Very well,” Arden said. “I will go, but my faith is not much.”
“It need not be much. It need only be enough. Mahar was guided to the bow and you were guided to Mahar. Then I found you and brought you here, as Evénn also did later on. Do you think all these things happened by chance? If not,” and he paused to smile at Agarwen, “they are omens that it belongs to you to wield the bow. You must have some faith in that.”
“I didn’t think you believed in omens.”
“I did not say that. I said omens do not slay dragons. Of themselves they are only signs. We must have faith to act upon them.”
“Still, if all this is so, Master, then I was meant to have the bow. That is a thought I find overwhelming.”
“So do I. Who wouldn’t? But enough talk. Let’s go, or we’ll miss the beginning of the meditation. Agarwen, what are you waiting for? Master Falimar and Evénn are nearly back. Go get the arrows and begin. Tomorrow will be harder.”
“Yes, Master Jalonn,” said Agarwen, who nodded to Arden and Jalonn as they, joined by Niall, headed for the gates of the citadel. Just then, Evénn and Falimar walked up to her.
“So, you’ve arrived, Agarwen,” Evénn said, offering her an arrow. “Are you ready to begin?”
“As you wish, Master Evénn,” she said, awestruck to be standing face to face with him.
“No, don’t call me that. Evénn will suffice.”
“Of course. What is my mark?”
“Do you see that small wooden block atop the post down there? Look closely. It is rather small.”
“I can’t hit that. It’s over a hundred yards away.”
“I think you will. Let the bow guide you.”
“Very well,” she answered, aimed, and let the arrow fly. A moment later she gasped.