Like ghosts they came from the darkness. Unseen, unheard, they gave the dragon’s men no warning: they struck on nights of seaside fog or summer thunder; they struck in the dark blue of dusk or the gray twilight of morning, to cut a throat, storm a bastion, or fell a patrol in a storm of arrows. Then, cloaked in gray or green or the dragon’s black, they vanished utterly, as suddenly as they had come. Behind them they left dead men, or survivors crippled with despair. No pursuit of the Rangers availed. None could be taken alive. Even of those they killed, the dragon’s men were uncertain. Ghosts had a way of walking the night.
In the four months since the red dragon fell, a war of vengeance had raged, truceless and merciless on both sides. From the City of Narinen the rising had spread as fast as rumor, until all that wide land was in arms. The people rose in hatred and wrath, and the dragon’s men paid in blood for the years of their power. It mattered little to the slaves if their masters had served the dragon out of fear or hunger, out of greed or ambition. No trooper was safe alone or in a small squadron. Nor were their homes and families safe, if no Rangers were present to restrain the people. A generation of the dragon’s malice bred only death.
Even in the first days of the war, Machlor, the dragon’s general in Narinen, had been very hard pressed. His men were stunned and confused by the overthrow of one so mighty as the dragon. Men said the dragonslayer had returned out of the deeps of time, wielding again his ancient sword. They whispered the name of Evénn through the streets and alleys and barracks of the City. At night they pointed to the stars in the southern sky that bore his name, and said that god had set them there as a promise, now fulfilled.
“Who else could have cut down the troopers at Prisca like that, and lit up the winter sky with his power? Who else could have slain the dragon, then vanished without a trace?” they asked.
“Well, where is he then?” some scoffed.
“And where is the dragon? Tell us that.”
There was only one answer. All had heard the dragon’s final cry, and felt their hearts shake off the burden of his life. Even before the soldiers Machlor sent out to investigate had returned, their faces ashen with terror, every man and woman in the City knew what news they were bringing. Within hours the streets of Narinen were running with blood, just as they had a generation earlier. Tiles and paving stones plunged down from the rooftops on the heads of watchmen and soldiers. Bows and swords, long knives long hidden, nearly forgotten beneath floorboards and behind walls, again saw the light. Mobs cornered the watchmen who had long tormented them, and became their tormentors in turn. They put houses and barracks to the torch, and those who fled from the fire they put to the sword. They stormed prisons in search of friends and family last seen entering their doors years before.
By the third day of the war Machlor’s hold over the City had so slipped that he dispatched messengers to recall the garrisons from Prisca and the fortress by the Great Road. Without more men he saw that he could not maintain control of the City until the other dragons came. With more troops he could then make his own reprisals more horrific, and in time the discipline of the soldiery and the savagery of Machlor would begin to tell. But while he waited for these troops to arrive, Machlor sought to kill the bravest and most reckless of the rebels. Yet the restless, fragile order Machlor’s terror imposed by day was broken again by night, and each dawn saw more of the City in flames and more bodies of his men littering the streets. Despite their losses, the people had waited, seething, far too long to be easily or quickly put down again. In his contempt, the general underestimated them.
Narinen indeed now looked much as it had thirty years before, the day after a young sergeant named Machlor first stepped ashore. He had led the storming of the Sea Gate, and by dint of skill and luck he survived to earn his first promotion. For three decades he had served the dragon well. It was he who had tracked the young apprentice Ranger back to the camp at Skia, he who had guided the regiments back to take the camp months later. There he fell before the sword of the elder Hansarad. Fell but did not die. Wounds to which the hardiest would have succumbed in hours somehow made him only more determined to survive.
His talents and relish for cruelty soon caught the dragon’s eye, and for ten years now he had been the commanding general of the City and Land of Narinen. Only the dragon was above him. No man west of the ocean was more powerful, none more like his master in cunning. Long had Machlor studied under the dragon and many were the conversations they had. Often they talked far into the night, seeking new ways to strip the people of hope and grind their pride into dust. In attempting to put down the rebellion, Machlor was as remorseless and vicious as the red beast himself. The rebels were a threat to him, and he did not care for threats. Ambition moved him like lust drives petty men: if he could reestablish control by the time the other dragons came, he might rise still higher.
But Machlor erred in choosing to strip Prisca and the fortress of all their soldiers. For in the chaos of the first days many of the City’s inhabitants slipped away. Most simply fled, rejoicing to be free of the hell the dragon had made of Narinen. Some of the younger ones had never before been outside the walls or seen the mountains and the broad green fields of the coastlands. To them the sea was a mystery, though every day they could taste its salt on the air, and in a storm hear the thunder of its waves on the unseen shore. But not all those who escaped were so simple. They knew the rising could not succeed without aid. And though few of them had ever seen more of a Ranger than a head displayed on a pike, they left to seek them out.
Then on a night full of rain two of these men found themselves surrounded without warning at the point where the Great Road emerged from the gap in the Green Hills. Dark figures commanded them to stand their ground or be slain. From the circle of cloaked and hooded men two stepped forward. Their faces were in shadow, but the glint of their eyes was visible even through the gloom of a rainy night. Several feet in front of them the men stopped. Their proud, still bearing told the City men that these were not servants of the dragon.
“Who are you and what do you seek here?” the first of the cloaked men asked them.
“My name is Imlan,” the first of the City men replied, and gestured to his companion, “and this is Garalf. We are from the City. We have come to seek the Rangers.”
“Why do you seek them?”
“The dragon has fallen, and we are rebels. We need their help,” Garalf said.
“If you are rebels, why do you flee? Why not stand and fight?” came the voice of the other from beneath his hood.
“We are not soldiers, sir,” said Garalf, turning to face him. “I am a cooper, and Imlan here is a joiner. No matter how hard we try, in the end we can only lose. And more of the dragon’s soldiers are on their way to the City, from the fort over there, and probably elsewhere. Just hours ago we hid in a ditch not far from the road while the garrison of the fortress marched by.”
“Even if you win now,” the other asked, “the other dragons will soon come to avenge the one who is dead. How will you fight them?”
“We cannot fight them,” Imlan responded. “We cannot win.”
“Then why fight at all?”
“Because beyond all hope the dragonslayer has returned. Because we will be slaves no longer. So for now we will fight and be free. Whatever comes afterward, comes.”
Rain dripping from their hoods and cloaks, the two dark figures retreated a few steps and stood looking at them. A long pause followed in which both Imlan and Garalf felt that their honesty and worth were being assessed. All around them more and more shadows emerged from the gloom of the rain to stand and await the decision. Imlan thought he could see dozens of them, some closer and more distinct, others farther away, their presence scarcely more than guessed at. Beside almost every shadowy figure stood a tall, shaggy hound. At last the first man to speak came closer and spoke again.
“Imlan and Garalf, you say you seek the Rangers. Well, you have found them,” he said and approached, stretching forth a gloved hand from beneath his cloak. “I command here. My name is Hansarad.”
“Hansarad!” both Imlan and Garalf said in astonishment.
The Ranger laughed softly. In the dark and rain his laughter struck them as a strange thing until he spoke once more. “No, no, it’s my father those tales are told of, and I am not his equal. But all of us here will aid you as we can, whatever the cost.”
“Thank you,” Imlan cried, seizing his hand.
The Ranger laughed again for a moment.
“But the cost will be high,” Hansarad said. “You must know that. We are not an army, only a hundred.”
“A hundred Rangers are worth an army,” Garalf nearly shouted in his joy.
Still holding Imlan’s hand, Hansarad put a finger to his lips.
“Silence is the first rule,” he said, “and if you truly know my father’s story, you know a hundred Rangers is not always enough. Now, both of you, come with Baran and me and tell us what you know.”
“Is … the dragonslayer here?” Garalf stammered suddenly.
“No,” Baran replied. “Evénn and his companions are not here. They have battles of their own to fight.”
“I don’t understand,” Garalf said.
“Their business is with the dragons,” Baran answered.
“Yes,” Hansarad added. “This battle is ours.”
In keeping with the orders they had received from Master Raynall months earlier, Hansarad, Baran, and the other captains of the Rangers who patrolled the Green Hills nearest the City had begun moving towards the Great Road within a few days after Evénn and his companions crossed over the mountains. By the day the dragon fell, four detachments of them, each more than two dozen strong had gathered in the woods nearby. That morning the distant noise of the dragon’s death scream had rolled across the coastlands and through the gap in the mountains which the Great Road followed. On the eastern slopes high above the Road the Rangers’ advanced scouts were the first to hear it echoing off the hills around them. More faintly was it heard by the Rangers still on the western slopes beyond the gap, and their hearts rejoiced before even the messenger sent by the scouts had arrived.
A few hours later the scouts reported the arrival at the fortress of a rider from the City. They saw him coming in great haste down the long straight Road from the Mountain Gate. By the time he reached the fort, his horse was lathered and stumbling from the pace. At the gates the rider leaped from his back and raced inside. Minutes later two other riders departed, racing at a full gallop for the gap into the Plains of Rheith. The Rangers let them pass on their errand, which, as they rightly guessed, was to order the return of the two companies of dragon’s men who were patrolling the road that ran north and south beneath the mountains’ western slopes. Once through the gap, one rode north and the other south, but they did not ride alone. For Rangers followed them under the eaves of the forest.
That night the camp of the southern patrol was overrun. They had marched nearly twenty-five miles in three painful stages since the messenger from the fortress had arrived in the middle of the afternoon. Hours after sunset they pitched camp several miles south of the gap, intending to rest and pass through to the fort the next morning. But in the night their pickets in the fields beyond the camp were lost without word or cry, their sentries fell silently at the camp’s very edge, and the sudden hoof beats of four dozen mounted Rangers startled the sleeping camp into a final awakening. By dawn the crows were gathering to a new feast. The Rangers were long gone.
Three hours later the northern patrol was approaching the turn in the Great Road that marked the halfway point through the mountains. There a naked outcrop of granite jutted from the wooded slopes, so massive that it seemed to buttress the hills and keep them from collapsing upon the lonely road. It was a strait, cold place of many shadows, which even in greener days the dragon’s men had not liked. The trees looked down from their scornful heights, and whispered secrets to each other on the ceaseless mountain breeze. But whether the men of the dragon marched or rode, it was the fear of the watchful gaze of other eyes that weighed most upon their spirits. For thirty years every trooper, every messenger who passed this way was certain he was not alone.
Today they were not mistaken.
A moment before the first of the troopers reached the bend, a flight of several dozen arrows raked the column from behind. Some of the soldiers turned back to face their attackers, but another volley of arrows came down from the trees on both sides, nearly every shaft finding its mark. With the third volley, the last of the officers fell and what was left of the column’s rear disintegrated. Men surged forward, trying to shove their way past the soldiers ahead of them. Horns began blowing in an effort to summon aid from the fort miles away. Their music echoed through the gap, but the only answers that came were from the woods themselves: more arrows and the call of the Rangers’ own horns raised in mockery. The troopers were all running now, casting their arms aside. They fled around the great stone, pursued by the withering rain of arrows, but they found no safety. Scores of arrows greeted them. The morning was quiet once more.
Nearly a hundred Rangers and their hounds stepped from the trees on either side to make sure there were no survivors. Working quickly and with no need for orders from their captains, they replenished their quivers from those of the enemy dead and stripped them of their food, water, cloaks, and helmets. For now the Great Road was secure behind them. It would take over a week for any substantial body of reinforcements to arrive from Elsen, nearly two hundred miles to the west along the Road. Other Rangers would stalk and harry them. No further messengers would be permitted through the gap. The City was cut off from the west, and Hansarad and Baran led their Rangers through the Green Hills to the coastlands where they settled in to study the fortress which blocked the way to Narinen.
After two days of careful observation and discussion among the captains of the strengths and weaknesses of the fort, not much had changed but the weather. For on the afternoon of the first day the rains came again. The fort itself was strong and well situated, difficult to approach unseen or in force, with a still large garrison of four companies. Of this rainy winter even the hardiest of the Rangers were growing impatient, but they continued to stare quietly through it. A half dozen riders left the fortress at intervals to seek the long overdue patrols from beyond the mountains. None returned. After first light on the second day no more were dispatched. That day around noon another messenger arrived from the City. Much to the Rangers’ surprise the gates opened again an hour later and almost the entire garrison marched off at a quick pace for the Mountain Gate thirty miles away. The gray veils of rain soon closed behind them.