03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 9.3

The next morning Arden met Agarwen and Niall on the stairway leading to the fencing hall. Agarwen was talking excitedly about her practice with the bow the afternoon before. Niall and Arden smiled at her enthusiasm, a mirror to their own, but both of them had reflections of their own that went beyond the pleasure of handling the bow. Niall contemplated his children, his conversation with Evénn, and the hard road ahead; Arden the responsibility that fate, as he wished to call it, had imposed on him by making him the bearer of the bow. He tried to recall everything he knew of Mahar and that night in the City square. Still he could not escape the thought that he was not Mahar, or Evénn, or any of the other Masters or Rangers who seemed better choices to wield a weapon that demanded faith of its bearer.
As they drew closer to the fencing room, they heard the ringing of swords, clear and sharp, though the doors to the chamber were shut. Evénn and Jalonn had evidently begun early that morning. They stood outside waiting for a pause in which to knock. None came for several minutes and so they stood and listened. It was ancient custom not to knock on the doors while swordplay could be heard. At last the room grew quiet and Niall rapped twice on the oaken door.
To their surprise Master Raynall opened the door to admit them. They returned his greeting as they entered. Evénn gestured to them to be seated as he and Jalonn approached.
“Today we will begin training with the sword of adamant,” Evénn began. “For, though I shall carry it, you must all be ready to use it if evil befalls me. You have all handled the bow, and so you know that it is unlike other bows. The sword is similar. You will find it lighter, sharper, and stronger than any sword you have ever used. Enchantments are woven about it and into it for the doom of the dragons. Yet unlike the bow and the spear it is not good in itself. It may be used to kill anyone. This is why I had to hide it. In the wrong hands, it is capable of terrible evil. Even in the hands of someone who is good, but unskilled, it is perilous.
“How so, Evénn?” Niall asked.
“Master Jalonn and I will show you,” the elf replied.
With that he and Jalonn crossed the floor. From a rack Evénn took down a two-handed great sword, far longer and heavier than was in common use. Jalonn picked up the sword of adamant from a nearby table. The old scabbard and the worn grip on the hilt had been replaced since the day Evénn revealed the sword in the Council Chamber. Jalonn slowly drew it slowly, feeling its balance, then took up a defensive pose opposite Evénn. The same blue light pulsed down the edge of the blade.
With a cry Evénn sprang forward, moving with a speed that Arden had not seen since the night they met. He handled the heavy sword without difficulty. At first Evénn’s blows were light, and so rapid that the two blades scarcely seemed to part before they met again. For a moment Jalonn was very hard pressed – that in itself impressed the three Rangers – but he soon adapted, and increased his speed to match Evénn’s. Then Evénn struck a blow so hard it would have shattered any other sword, but the sword of adamant blocked and absorbed it.
The balance now shifted. Jalonn began to advance, moving, thrusting, slashing, testing Evénn as much as the sword. The pulse along the blade’s edge quickened and brightened. Though Evénn parried every blow, he was driven backwards. So far Jalonn had used only the flat of the blade, but now he struck twice with the edge. At the second blow there was a flash so brilliant that the Rangers had to glance away. When they looked back, Jalonn was standing perfectly still, his blade poised at Evénn’s throat. As the swordmaster lifted it up and away, Evénn took a step back, and beckoned to the Rangers. Little more than the sword’s long hilt remained in the elf’s hands. The rest lay on the floor at his feet.
They rose and hurried over. Agarwen picked up the shard. The blade had not been broken, as she expected it to be, but cut cleanly through about an inch below the hilt, the strongest part of any sword. She passed it to Arden and Niall.
“As you see,” Evénn said, when they were done examining it, “the sword of adamant is not idly named. To make it, my father’s smiths labored in the forges beneath Elashandra for nearly a century. I doubt even they could tell the number of times they hammered the glowing steel flat and folded it back upon itself, day after day, year upon year; or the number of incantations they sang as they worked the metal, to render each layer strong and flexible. The greatest of the elf lords came as well, with spells woven of the pain and lamentations of our people, which they sought to turn back against the dragons who caused them. That grief kindles into flame when the sword is drawn. But the flame you see is no more than the outward show, like tears, of what lies hidden within.
“There were many attempts to perfect the sword, and many failures that the smiths melted back down. Yet with each failure they learned, and began again, and in the end forged this blade. They made it to kill dragons. You must learn to wield it with the greatest care, or you could easily kill someone you wished merely to disarm. Now that all my companions have been chosen, we will practice with the sword every day until we leave. Remember, while you are training, use only the flat of the blade.”
Jalonn handed the sword to Arden, and indicated that he would be the first to try it.
“Evénn,” Niall said, “you said that all have been chosen. Who besides us will go?”
“I shall,” Jalonn answered.
“That is good news,” Niall said. “I was hoping you would come.”
“As was I,” added Agarwen. “Then we are the entire party?”
“Yes,” Evénn replied. “The Masters and I are agreed. We must go unnoticed for as long as possible; and, if seen, be taken for no more than scouts or spies. So the fewer we are the better.”
“Well,” said Arden, almost absently. He was studying, not the heft and balance of the sword as another might do, but the fire ghosting along its edge. “It is fitting that you should come, Jalonn.”
Jalonn, who had been watching him, merely turned up a corner of his mouth at this remark, but Agarwen asked.
“Why is that, Arden?”
“Master Jalonn and I started on this path together the day he found me. It is right we walk the end together as well.”
"A road that begins and likely ends in fire," Jalonn answered dryly. It has, I confess, a certain symmetry." But, if we wish to escape the fire that awaits us, we had best begin. Time is wasting.”
“Before we do,” Evénn interrupted, “let me tell you one other thing.” As he said this he reached into a pocket and took out folded slips of paper. To each of them he gave one.
“Here you will find the words of the enchantment necessary to use the sword’s full power. Learn them, then burn the paper. Do not speak the words of the spell aloud, even under your breath. If you do, the dragons will hear you. They will know the sword has been found and is in the hands of one who knows how to unleash it. They will also sense the direction in which the sword lies, and they will come looking. We cannot afford that. The power of the sword must remain unknown until we need it.”
“The spell is so brief,” said Niall, somewhat surprised.
“Yes, a brief incantation is more easily remembered and easier to pronounce correctly. Long enchantments have greater power, but are difficult in battle. Misspeaking one can be disastrous.”
“So we have heard,” said Arden.
“Let us hear no more of that, Arden,” said Raynall gently.
“It’s all right, Master Raynall,” Evénn said, then resumed. “Now, if the time comes for you to use the sword, and the dragon’s men are nearby, do not say the words aloud. Remember the sword can be used by anyone that knows the words.”
“There’s something I do not understand,” Agarwen said. “If the dragons can recognize the words, they must know them, and be able to tell their men.”
“True, the dragons do know the words. They have heard them before. But they wouldn’t tell them even to their most trusted servants. For the dragons do not trust them very far. They are wicked, not foolish. They would not even let one under their spell know the words. The danger to themselves is too great.”
“But why?” Agarwen asked. “If a man is enspelled, how could he harm them?”
“Because if another found a way to counter the spell, whether to remove it completely or overmaster it, then that man would have the weapon and the words to use it.”
“Who could do that?” Agarwen asked again.
“Perhaps one of the other dragons. That is what they fear most – their own kind. But for our purposes we must remember never to utter the spell needlessly or aloud. This afternoon I shall give you the spell for the bow. With it we will exercise the same care. Master Raynall will be joining us starting today. Since we are now five, we need another sword for training.”
From that morning on their training began anew. For the sword of adamant placed new demands on their skills. Years on the fencing floor and in battle abroad had not prepared them for a weapon to whose edge granite and steel were as soft as flesh. To fight with a weapon no other could resist required greater balance and control, not just to avoid killing, but to avoid being killed. Without resistance it was too easy to overreach. Each of the Rangers learned this lesson the first day. Even Jalonn stumbled.
After the first day Master Raynall took charge of their instruction. All agreed that the best method was for them all, including Jalonn, to start using the sword in the very rudiments of swordsmanship. They began again with the positions, footwork, thrusts and parries they had first learned years before as apprentices, repeated without pause to the crisp insistence of Master Raynall’s commands, which carried over the ring and clash of Evénn and the other three as they fenced with their own blades. And, although the doors to the fencing room were shut upon them throughout their sessions, an unusual number of apprentices and young Rangers found that their duties required them to pass that way during the first hour of the day, when it was rumored that Master Raynall put Master Jalonn rather severely to the test. The source of the rumor was never known, but the older Rangers, not a few of whom were also seen at times in the corridor nearby, believed it to be Raynall himself.
The afternoons continued to be devoted to the bow, though after another week Arden began arriving late. As soon as their fencing was done, he would leave the Valley with Argos and the wolf to ride for hours on the new mount given him by the Master of Horses. When questioned, Arden said he needed to grow familiar with the horse, a brawny, rough-haired chestnut called Impetuous. Late in the day he would join them, take a single turn with the bow, then leave with Jalonn for the Time of Reflection.
“He is troubled,” Agarwen said as Arden came cantering across the Valley one afternoon. She lowered the bow and looked over at Evénn, who was also watching him approach.
“All his life he has waited and prepared for this hour,” Evénn answered. “Now it is upon him, and he fears he will fail because he thinks he lacks faith, the one thing he never reckoned he would need.”
“I might be short on faith, too, had I seen what he has.”
“But Arden does not lack faith.”
“Why do you say that?” she asked in surprise.
“Those without faith have no doubts. He will discover that in time. Now take aim.”

At night after the common meal they also gathered now for several hours in the library. There they discussed the route proposed by Arden to the Council and which passes might be open in the Green Hills when they arrived. Master Raynall informed them of the location of several small camps of Rangers where they would find shelter and news of the enemy. Arden and Niall both offered many useful details about the mountains and their forests, and how the crossing of one pass or another would place them for their approach to the City. Keral brought out fine old illuminated maps, richly and accurately drawn, over which they pored for hours, weighing one route through the mountains against another.
Agarwen was particularly attentive and full of questions. For she had been born three years after the Fall, and alone of all her companions she had never been to the City or that part of Narinen. To her the City was almost a myth, a symbol of their fallen country and the sufferings of the world beyond. Yet she could see that to the others it was much more than that. It was a real place as well, and to Arden and Niall it was home. Listening to them speak of it now, she was glad she had finally heard Arden tell his tale in full. Those nights as they studied the maps and Arden spoke of the City and the countryside nearby, the warm flicker of the oil lamps seemed to ignite an answering fire in his eyes.
They also read over the texts of the dragon songs and compared what the poems said about the dragons to Evénn’s account of his experience. Now that he had been among them for a month, they had for the most part grown quite accustomed to him. In the fencing chamber, on the archery ground, or when they were together at table, it became almost easy to forget who he was, but sitting with him every night in the library, listening to him tell of those ancient days, and hearing his answers to their questions, reminded them that just a few weeks ago he had been little more than the mythical hero they had heard tales of as they grew up.
Yet his modesty about those days was disarming. He always emphasized how important the deeds of others were. Neither he nor anyone else could have succeeded alone. Often he referred to Arden’s descriptions of the behavior of the dragons and also drew on much that Master Jalonn had seen that day. Niall, too, had seen the dragons in the west, and, at Evénn’s request, he spoke of their actions there at some length.
Above all Evénn told them over and again that, as fearsome as the strength and speed of the dragons were, their powers of enchantment were to be dreaded far more. They could raise the wind or waves of the sea one instant and calm them the next. They could make the earth tremble and gape open beneath their feet. With a thought they could uproot trees and boulders and hurl them. Worst of all they could enchant even the strongest and the wisest, and make them unwilling thralls to their malice. At great and painful length he recounted the story of Conaras and his slaughter of Evénn’s family and his own.
“You must never look the dragons in the eye, never converse with them, never heed them. They are old in lies and treachery. Nothing they say can be believed. For them to kill you outright would be a greater kindness.”
“Why didn’t the red dragon kill me?” Arden asked. “I’ve never understood that.”
“I don’t know, Arden,” Evénn replied. “I can only think that it was as you surmised: it amused him that you, a lone child, had the effrontery to challenge him with a useless weapon.”
“But if their powers of body and enchantment are what you say they are, Evénn,” Niall said, “how will we be able to stand against them? Why would they not destroy us from afar before we ever came close enough to attack them?”
“Remember the songs, Niall, and remember Mahar’s duel with the black dragon in the square. The dragon would not have come down to fight Mahar and the others if he didn’t despise them. Had he feared them, he would have destroyed them as you say. The arrogance and malice of the beasts are also their vulnerability. They will not take the threat we pose seriously enough – at least not at first – and they will let us come near them in order to sport with us before they kill us. There lies our chance.”
“Not at first you say,” Jalonn said, “but you’ve also said that they are different this time. They have learned from the mistakes they made the last time. That much is clear. Doubtless they will learn the lesson if we kill one.”
“No doubt they will learn it in time. But since they despise each other as much as they do us, I hope they may not learn it immediately. But as it is, we must do our best.”
“That we will,” said Jalonn.
Over the weeks they had many such conversations, sometimes the five of them alone, but more often several of the other Masters joined them. Often they remained in the library till late, the walnut tables piled high with maps and books of song or history. They learned as much of each other here as they did on the fencing floor and archery ground by day. It was here, too, very late one night as the lamps were burning low that Evénn and Raynall brought before the companions and the Masters one last matter touching upon the dragons. At a sign from Raynall, Evénn interrupted their studies.

“My friends,” he said, “our first task is to kill the red dragon. That we all know. But I also know that some of you have not asked the next question.”
“What then?” said Jalonn.
“Yes, what then? For when the dragon is dead, we must leave quickly. The others will come seeking vengeance. We cannot be there when they arrive, to be trapped in Narinen with three of them hunting us. Our strength is too little to face them all at once. To meet them one at a time is our only chance. And so we must surprise them and cross the sea. There we can obtain the spear, and when the silver dragon returns to my city, attack him there.”
“So you have a ship,” Jalonn said.
“I do. Late on the night I arrived in the Valley I went to Master Raynall and we spoke of it. We agreed to say nothing of it to until just before we left here. We must keep this secret, or we shall never have the spear. It is the mightiest of the three weapons, and we shall need it before the end. So, yes, I have a ship, and you must trust me. I will not tell you more.”
Autumn grew colder and wetter as it waned into winter. One by one the scouts and messengers returned, as did the hawks, which had been sent to bring word to the Rangers in the mountains beyond the Plains of Rheith. All the news they brought back to the Valley received thorough discussion each evening in the library. From all they could hear there was no unusual activity anywhere by the enemy. The dragon’s men patrolled and at times encountered Rangers who engaged them. The dragon remained in Narinen, to which, now that the harvest had been gathered, long trains of carts and wagons traveled, rumbling along the old republican roads that crossed the broad continent.
The only ill news was the weather. Rain seemed to be falling everywhere, in a numbing gray drizzle when it was not pouring. The constant wet sapped the last warmth from the year, allowing a chill uncertainty to creep into many hearts which only a few short weeks ago had discovered a new hope. Now they were not so sure. When some said that the rain would help the companions move unseen, others answered that it would also swell the rivers they had to cross, and that what was rain in the Valley of the Rheith was snow higher up. Few passes in the Coastal Range would still be open when the companions reached them if this rain kept up. Though none despaired, those of a more somber cast of mind saw a bleaker, more dangerous journey ahead of Evénn and the others.
For members of the party itself, their sense of purpose and accomplishment in their training offered some remedy. Yet it was clear to Jalonn, who from long habit watched the movements and eyes of others, that the thought of the grim path they were soon to walk was not without effect. Agarwen threw herself into training with more passion than any of them except Arden, and was even more devoted to their studies in the library, as if by learning all she could about the Republic and the dragons now she could make up for being born too late. From her concern for Arden’s solitary rides – for Jalonn had seen this, too – he gleaned more of her heart than she would have wished to reveal, but the secrets of Agarwen’s heart had never been a mystery to him. Yet the swordmaster saw little cause to worry about her.
Arden was another matter. No one knew him better than Jalonn did. From the night he found him sleeping in the rain beside three fresh graves it had taken them twenty one brutal months to reach the Valley. The dragons’ men were everywhere. More than once he and Arden had to turn back from a route they found blocked, only to discover that the way they had come was now cut off as well, compelling them to hide for weeks at a time and wait for the enemy to move on. More than once the rage that soon came exploding out of Arden almost cost them both their lives. Those months had taught Jalonn much of patience.
Once they came to the Valley, he took Arden as his apprentice – that was Master Galt’s price for letting Arden stay. For the next five years he was never long away from Jalonn’s side: two years of training with sword, horse, bow, and hound, and instruction in history, letters, and geometry; and then three spent wandering the land alone together. Arden learned every lesson well. In many he excelled his peers. He became a Ranger through and through. Yet he remained apart, seldom speaking first or long, even with Jalonn and Raynall. There also came to be a strange remoteness in his eye, as though he looked upon a world others did not see, a world lit only by dragon fire.
Jalonn knew Arden’s strength and his conviction as well as he knew the habit of solitude and silence he had long cultivated, so he could be alone with the wounds he would not let heal. If healed they could be. Some could not. So it pleased him to hear Arden talk as much as he had since returning with Evénn. It also pleased him when Arden agreed to attend the Time of Reflection for the first time since completing his apprenticeship over twenty years ago. It was the only way, Jalonn thought, that Arden could master the rage still coiled within him. However much discipline, strength, and time had allowed Arden to contain it, just over two months ago he had tried to kill the first real hope they had had in a generation.
Jalonn also noticed that Niall was speaking of his children more frequently of late. Not much more, of course, but enough for him to mark it. It was natural, he supposed, for a father to think of his children when his death might well lie before him, and when he was seeking to create for them a future that did not entail hiding in a secluded valley waiting for the inevitable day when the dragons found and destroyed them. Niall and Evénn talked about the children, the younger two who were still at home, and Erinor, his eldest, now serving his apprenticeship far away. Niall never mentioned the daughter taken by fever ten winters ago. Evénn’s tale of the doom of Conaras had a greater effect on Niall than the rest, though even Jalonn found it heartbreaking to hear the story from the mouth of Evénn himself.
As Jalonn sat in the final meeting the night before they departed, he supposed he could not himself be immune to the burden of responsibility which their errand placed upon them. Did it manifest itself in the increasingly vigilant eye he had been training on the others? He smiled to himself as he considered the notion. To look after them went with being one of the Masters, but he conceded to himself that there was more to it than duty. For each of the others there was something personal here that went beyond their duty as Rangers. This was true of Evénn, too. So why not himself? He had no children of his own to save or to lose now, no childhood friends or family he had lost then, no one from whom he wished more than he could have, no misdeeds of his people he might redeem. And Jalonn could not say whether this was a good thing or not.


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