07 December 2014

The Fulcrum of Dreams -- Chapter 1.2

That evening about sunset two troopers, black cloaked and black helmed, stood on guard on the platform above the fortress’ gates. All day they had stood there in the rain, staring off at the mountains, and they were soaked through to the skin. Their woolen cloaks were sodden and heavy, as were their boots. Cold, wet and tired, they longed for the warmth of a fire, their supper, and their beds at last.
“How much longer?” the first one said, his weariness of this day clear in his young voice.
“About an hour, Li,” Aran, the second guard, answered, “same as two minutes ago.”
“Well, I’m sick of this.”
“I’m sick of it, too, Li. Quit complaining, will you? You’re only making it worse.”
“But I’ve been here longer, Aran. So, I’m more sick of this than you are.”
“What? We walked here from the barracks together this morning.”
“No, here at the fort,” Li replied. “I’ve been here six months longer than you have.”
“You sound like my sister. Always complaining,” Aran said, annoyed, and pushed his ill-fitting helmet back up out his eyes once again. After a moment it slid back down.
“Shut up,” Li said. “I don’t want to hear about your sister.”
“What’s wrong with my sister?” Aran asked.
“Nothing,” Li muttered.
“No, I want an answer. Every time I mention my sister, you tell me to shut up, and I want to know why.”
Li glared at him, the rain running off his helmet and down his smooth cheeks. But to Aran it looked as if his eyes were moist as well. Li walked to the top of the steps, peered over the edge of the platform, and glanced carefully around. He turned back to Aran.
“Did you join or were you pressed?” he asked.
“Why? What’s that got to do with my sister?
“Did you join or were you pressed?”
“I joined. Why?”
“Why did you join?”
“Well, for the money mostly. My family needed the money.”
“Well, I was pressed. I didn’t want to be here. My father didn’t want me to be here either. And we didn’t use to be poor, not before, do you see? In the old days my father and grandfather made fine carriages for all the finest and wealthiest people in Narinen. They did excellent work and did very well because of that. Now my father makes wagons and wheelbarrows.”
“So you used to be rich, so what?” Aran said. “What does that have to do with my sister?”
“We weren’t rich.”
“Compared to us you were.”
“Yes, well,” Li said and paused.
“Li, what is it? Tell me. I don’t understand”
“No, I shouldn’t. The corporal will be here soon. We’ll get caught talking on duty.”
“Then come back over here, away from the edge, and we’ll pretend to keep watch. Just like we do every day. It’s not like there’s anything to see out there anyway.”
Li hesitated a moment, then came over to the wall.
“Come on, Li, tell me what it is.”
“Did they press men where you lived?”
“Then you’ve seen the gangs of men that come every year and demand people’s sons and brothers and fathers?”
Aran nodded.
“My family did have some money. My grandfather and father hid it away when the dragon came. His men killed my grandfather and burned his shop because he wouldn’t admit he had any money or tell them where it was hidden. Years later my father began bribing the local governor – a man he’d known since they were children – to leave us alone and keep the press gangs away from us. Every spring my father gave him gold so they would pass us by. For year or two they did.”
“Then what?”
“Then they came, in my eighteenth summer, last year, and gave my father a choice: they could either take me for a soldier, or my sister for a –”
“I get it,” Aran cut him off. “Your father gave them you.”
“But, Li, you saved your sister.”
“No, I didn’t,” Li shook his head.
“No?” Aran answered, flinching inside, thinking of his own sister.
“No. Three months later they came back and took her anyway. My father wrote me.”
“He put that in a letter?”
“No, he just said she had gone away.”
“Maybe she just got married,” Aran said, offering hope he did not possess.
“No. That he could have written down.”
“I’m sorry, Li,” he said after it had rained on them for a minute more.
“I hate them. I hate the dragon. I’m glad they killed him.”
“Shut up, Li, or you’ll get us both killed.”
Li did not reply, and Aran could find nothing more to say now that the story was told. All he could think to do was stand close by him in silence. Maybe that was enough. They stared off into the growing darkness, darker and more obscure because of the rain. In a few minutes they heard the quick beat of the corporal trotting up the stairs.
“Report,” he said in an official tone as he walked across the platform. He was scarcely older that Li and Aran.
“Nothing, sir,” Aran replied quickly, though Li was his senior. “Not even a bird since the column left.”
The corporal shot him a quick glance, curious and suspicious, then looked over at Li, who kept staring off into the dusk, his face grim and angry.
“What is it, soldier? Speak up now.”
Li did not answer with more than a glare.
“I told you to speak up. That’s an order.”
Again Li did not respond.
“Corporal,” Aran said.
“Not now, Aran,” the corporal answered.
“But corporal.”
“I said not now. What do I have to do –”
“Corporal, someone is coming through the gap.”
Even Li turned to look. Through the dusk and murk of the rain they saw six men, clad in black and mounted, emerging from the shadow of the hills and coming down the Road at a dead run. For a moment they were alone, then another group of riders, a dozen strong, burst from the gap behind them in headlong pursuit of the first group. All were racing for the dirt road that led from the Great Road to the fortress. Two of the foremost pursuers rose in their stirrups to loose arrows at their prey. One of the black cloaked riders fell from his mount.
“It’s our scouts,” Aran exclaimed. “They’ve come back at last!”
“No,” the corporal said thoughtfully as he considered the scene before him.
“Are the others –,” Aran began.
“Rangers,” Li said all in a hush.
“Rangers, yes,” the corporal said, then spun on his heel and hurried to the edge of the platform. “You there, trooper,” he shouted down to a soldier crossing the middle of the grounds. “Yes, Thorn, you. Go get the lieutenant and the sergeant. Now, trooper. We’ve got Rangers coming.”
“Corporal, they’re almost to the turn,” Aran called.
Back at the wall, the corporal saw that another of the scouts had fallen before the Rangers’ bows. Four remained, but the turn from the pavement of the Great Road to the mud of the road to the fort was sharp and dangerous in the best of weather for horses moving as swiftly as these. From the platform they could hear the horses neighing as they slid sideways and struggled to keep their feet under them in the slippery muck. Then the last of the scouts lost his horse from beneath him, and both man and beast fell and went rolling off the road into a ditch. Now the other three pushed their horses’ hearts to bursting, shouting and spurring and lashing them to a final effort. Now the Rangers made the turn, one pausing only slightly to shoot down into the ditch at the fallen scout as he tried to climb back onto the road. Now only four hundred yards lay between the scouts and the gates.
“We must open the gates for them,” Aran cried.
“No,” the corporal answered firmly.
“But they’re our men!”
“No, our men have been gone too long. They’re dead already.”
“But look, that’s Caras in front. Look at his horse’s blaze and four white socks.”
“It’s a trick. They’re all Rangers.”
“But the horse....We must open the gates.”
“Aran,” barked the corporal. “Do you remember the commander’s last words before he left? Didn’t you hear him tell the lieutenant not to open the gates?”
Aran shut his mouth in frustration. Together they watched the horsemen speed closer and closer. The horses’ heads stretched forward on their long necks, the riders bending low over them. Through the rush of the downpour and the drum of the hoof beats, the riders’ voices could just be heard crying desperately for them to open the gates. Aran turned to the corporal.
“But what if – ”
The back of the corporal’s hand struck him down. Aran looked up in surprise, his hand to his mouth.
“Don’t question me again,” the corporal growled, and turned back to the outer wall.
Then they heard the sound of the great bar in the gate being raised. The corporal spun around, his eyes wide, and started for the stairs. He stopped suddenly and looked about him.
“Where’s Li?” he demanded of Aran, who was still sitting on the platform holding his jaw. Now the sound of the hooves and the cries of the riders were loud in their ears. Now came the sound of the hinges creaking as the gates began to open.
“Come on,” cried the corporal, rushing down the stairs and drawing his sword, Aran scrambling to his feet behind him. As they reached the bottom and swung towards the gateway, they could see the sergeant and lieutenant also running towards the gates, their cloaks flapping behind them. The sergeant was waving his arms and shouting.
“No, no, no!”
But the gates were already wide open. The two gatekeepers stood looking dumbly at the sergeant, a puzzled expression on their faces. In the middle of the gateway stood Li.
“Shut the gates, damn you,” the corporal screamed at the gatekeepers. “Shut them.”
“But Li told us you said –” the nearer one said in surprise.
“Shut them!” the corporal shouted and threw his shoulder into the nearer gate.
The gate began to swing, but it was too late. The three Rangers disguised as scouts were too close to keep out. Li, sword in hand, glanced over his shoulder at the corporal, and smiled a smile of vengeance. As he did so, the first Ranger through the gates cut him down, followed by one of the gatekeepers. Now all three of them were inside and quickly slew all nearby. Behind them came the dozen Rangers who had pursued them. With bow, sword, and spear they hunted down and slew the dragon’s men. Within five minutes the fortress was theirs. They shut and barred the gates behind them. The dead were dragged aside.
Baran, the leader of the pursuers, reined in his horse outside the commander’s quarters and dismounted. He handed the reins to Rachor, who stood with Dara, two of Hansarad’s Rangers, at the foot of the steps leading up to the porch. Dara leaned on her spear, surveying the muddy grounds between herself and the gates, and watching the other Rangers moving from building to building in search of food, supplies, and any hidden survivors whom they could not allow to escape. On the other side of the steps, Baran saw Dara’s horse, Faraway, and the chestnut of the unfortunate Caras hitched to the rail.
“He’s inside?” Baran asked her.
“Yes, captain. He’s waiting for you.”
“Thank you. Dara, go make sure the others see to their horses before they get cold. That was a hard ride.”
“Yes, captain.”
“And find out how Falas, Nerun, and Elan are faring. Those falls they took on the ride were almost too convincing. I saw Nerun limping rather badly when she came in the gate. Report to us here.”
“I will, captain,” Dara said and strode off with her spear over her shoulder.
Inside Baran found Hansarad sitting behind the commander’s desk leafing through a stock of papers by candlelight. Hansarad looked up as he entered. The light from the hearth cast Baran’s shadow up the wall behind him and onto the low ceiling, making him look heroically tall and menacing, though he was already a head and shoulders taller than the tallest of the Rangers with them. Hansarad gave him a tired smile, and Baran cocked a bushy red eyebrow at him.
“I’m glad I’m not the commander here with you coming in the door,” Hansarad said quietly.
“You do look good behind that desk,” Baran replied.
“Is that a compliment?”
“No. Have you found anything?
“Nothing yet, really, but I’ve only just sat down. Here is the order summoning most of the garrison back to the City, signed and sealed by Machlor himself,” Hansarad said, proffering the document to Baran, who took and perused it.
“Not much to it, is there?” Baran said. “As if Machlor feared to say more than ‘return immediately.’ I didn’t think anything scared him.”
“That’s what I thought. It’s so terse it makes him sound on edge.”
“Good. It’s nice to see them on their heels for once.”
Just then a knock came and Dara appeared in the doorway. Next to Baran she looked almost a child.
“The horses are being tended to as you ordered, captain Baran,” she said. “Elan, Falas, and Nerun are just a bit bruised and sore. Nothing’s broken, though Nerun is quite a sight. With all the mud on her, all you can see is her eyes.”
“Well, there’s plenty enough rain to wash that off,” said Hansarad.
“Anything else, sir?” Dara asked.
“Yes,” Hansarad replied. “I want you and Rachor to go through these papers and everything else in these quarters carefully. See if you can find anything useful.”
He looked at Baran, who nodded.
“Baran and I need to get back outside and see if we’ve have discovered anything. They should have searched the gatehouse and the bodies by now.”
“I’ll help Rachor finish up with the horses and we’ll get right to work in here, captain.”
“Thank you, Dara,” Hansarad said as he rose from the commander’s chair. “And, Dara?”
“Yes, captain?”
“You did well tonight. Everyone did. See to it they know that.”
Baran grunted his approval.
“Thank you, captain. I’ll pass the word,” she said and disappeared from the doorway.
Hansarad and Baran left the building and crossed the compound, the mud sucking at their boots all the way to the gates, where they found the bodies of the slain troopers laid out in two long lines. Some appeared to be sinking into the soft mud, as if the earth were already claiming them for her own. The Rangers who searched the bodies reported that they had found nothing of importance. One of them carried a torch to light the captains’ way as they inspected the bodies themselves. Its flickering light at times made the dead faces seem to move or change expression. Baran and Hansarad were near the end of the first row when they heard one of the new guards at the gates shout for them to be opened.
A minute later three more Rangers rode in and were pointed in the direction of Baran and Hansarad. One trotted over and dismounted.
“What is it, Telor?” Baran asked.
“Our scouts have spotted two men – definitely not soldiers – walking westward across the fields north of the Road. They seem to be in quite a hurry.”
“Where are they?”
“About four miles east of here and maybe two hundred yards north of the Road.”
“Fleeing the City?” Baran said.
“That’s what the scouts think.”
“And you?” Hansarad asked.
“I agree. It makes sense.”
“We’ll have to have a talk with them then,” Hansarad said.
“I understand, captain,” Telor responded.
“Yes, if they’ve escaped from the City, no doubt there’s much they can tell us,” Baran added.
“Shall we bring them in, sir?” Telor asked.
“No, let them come to us. If they’re seeking to escape, they’ll be heading for the mountains. Baran and I will join you shortly back by the gap.”
“Yes, captain,” Telor said with a nod and remounted his horse. With the others he rode back through the gates, which closed behind them.
Taking the torch from the Ranger beside him, Baran told him that he and Hansarad would need two fresh horses from the fort’s stables. The Ranger went off to fetch them.
When Baran turned back to Hansarad, he saw him crouched between the last two bodies at the end of the first row. Baran held out the torch to provide more light.
“Find something?” Baran asked.
“No,” Hansarad replied sadly.
“What is it, then?”
“Some of them are so young, Baran. These two here are scarcely more than boys.”
Baran knelt down beside him.
“Thinking like that will get you killed, Hansarad, or worse, your men. Young as they were, they served the dragon. That makes them our enemy. You and I have both seen many young men and women die on both sides. We’ve killed them, too, and we’ll kill more before it’s done.”
Hansarad shook his head in disgust, not disagreement.
“I know,” he said, and gestured at the dead boy he was crouched over. “This one here, with the peculiar smile on his face, was standing right in the gateway as I rode up. Just as I raised my sword to strike him, he looked back over his shoulder – at what or whom I don’t know. I almost hit him with the flat of my blade instead of the edge.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No. As you say, he was my enemy.”
“But seeing him now,” Baran said, “you think that a boy like this shouldn’t be anybody’s enemy?”
“Yes. I’ve never hesitated in combat. It’s thinking about it before and afterwards that I find difficult.”
“What else could war be?”
“True,” he said and stood up.
The Ranger now returned with their fresh horses. They mounted. Looking at the bodies of the two young men one last time, Baran mused for a moment.
“What do you think he was smiling at?” he asked Hansarad.
“I’m not sure I want to know. Let’s go. Those men the scouts spotted should be getting closer and I want to get to the gap well before they do.”
“Agreed,” Baran said and shouted for the gates to be opened.
It was near midnight by the time the Rangers returned with Imlan and Garalf, who were overjoyed to find them in possession of the fortress. They stared eagerly around them as they walked through the gates. They saw two rows of dead troopers with their cloaks cast over their faces, and the proud banner of the dragon – sable with a dragon in flight, embroidered in red silk, his wings spread from corner to corner – trodden into the mire outside the commander’s quarters.
The Rangers led them directly to the commander’s kitchen where they discovered a hot meal waiting, which charmed Imlan and Garalf almost as much as the sight of the corpses and the banner. The two had not eaten at all since leaving the City two days earlier. But no sooner did they sit down at the table than Dara entered with a document in her hand.
“Captain, you should see this,” she said as she walked over to hand it to him. It was a copy of an order from General Machlor which had been enclosed with the order recalling the garrison from the fortress. It directed the troops at Prisca also to return at once to Narinen. Hansarad passed it to Baran, who read it and handed it on to Elénna and Berandan, the captains of the other two bands of Rangers which had met at the Great Road.
“Where did you find this, Dara?” Hansarad asked.
“Rachor is the one who found it, captain. It was on the floor beneath the desk. It must have fallen or been dropped there.”
“Was there anything else of interest?”
“Not so far. We’re still sifting it, but it’s pretty dry stuff, mostly, manifests of goods, weapons, and other supplies for the fort here.”
“Thank you, Dara. Good work.” Hansarad said and turned back to the other captains. “Now we know that the garrison at Prisca will also be on its way to the City. How shall we deal with them?”
“How much is left of that garrison after what happened there?” asked Elénna, captain of the Rangers who watched the Great Road from the south. She was uncertain how else to refer to the events at Prisca. As were they all. For, although two of Baran’s Rangers had risked entering Prisca the day after the battle, they could do little but describe what they had found – three companies of dragon’s men slain, most without a single wound, still ordered by rank and file, as if they had just lain down and died where they stood. Of Evénn and his companions there was no sign. Only they could have told the whole story, but no one knew where they were.
“About two companies,” Hansarad replied. “Baran and I harried them without mercy on their way back to Prisca afterwards. By the time they got the gates shut behind them, they had lost nearly an entire company’s worth of men, but a week later they were reinforced from the City. So they are almost up to strength again.”
“Let Berandan and me go with our Rangers,” said Elénna. It’s over fifty miles from Prisca to the Great Road, and fifteen more from there to the City. Once they come down into the plains, they’ll have nowhere to hide from us.”
Hansarad thought about this until Baran spoke.
“It’s worth considering, Hansarad. The fewer of them get to the City, the better off we’ll be. At best the messenger sent to summon them won’t arrive until tomorrow morning.”
“Yes,” said Berandan, “if we start now we can ride across country and easily intercept them long before they’re halfway to the meeting of the roads.”
“Besides,” Elénna added, “we shall be mounted. Except for their officers, the dragon’s men will be on foot. If they keep together on the road, we’ll be able to ride within bowshot, pick a few of them off, and ride away. And if they leave the road to chase us, they’ll be even more vulnerable.”
“They have bowmen, too, you know,” Baran said. Though in favor of the attack, he disliked how easy Elénna and Berandan seemed to be making it sound. “You’ll all be on open ground, with little or no cover, and they’ll be able to see you coming. It won’t be like it was in the gap.”
“Name one thing we do, Baran,” Elénna replied, “that is without risk. I don’t take the lives of my men lightly.”
“Nor do I,” said Berandan.
“What worries me most,” Hansarad said, holding up his hand to stop their arguing, “is the idea of dividing our forces and putting so much distance between us. We’ll be too far apart to aid each other. And we don’t know yet what Machlor’s plans are, or how many men he has.”
“Then it’s time we asked them, Hansarad,” Elénna said, gesturing at Imlan and Garalf.
“Very well, what can you tell us of the City,” Hansarad said, turning politely to them.
Imlan and Garalf glanced at each other, as if wondering which of them should begin and where. Then Imlan took a deep breath and exhaled heavily.
“Masters,” he began.
“We are not the Masters,” Elénna said sharply. “Only captains. Address us as such.”
“I beg your pardon, captain,” Imlan said, “but Garalf and I are unused to such company. As for the City, I can tell you this. General Machlor’s hand is not as strong as you may think. There are not that many real soldiers in Narinen, and we are keeping them very busy.”
“And how would you know that?” Baran asked. “You’re a cooper.”
“Actually, captain, Garalf is the cooper. I am a joiner and a very good one, too. It’s a craft requiring close attention to detail, and an understanding of how things fit together. Over the years my work has often taken me into the homes and headquarters of the dragon’s highest officers, including the General. Because I’m there all the time, they hardly notice me. They speak as they shouldn’t when I am in the room. So I hear many things. That’s why the others sent me to you, because I could tell you things you would want to know. And I can tell you that the City’s garrison of real soldiers is not what you fear.”
The captains looked at each other, intrigued now and a fresh hunger began to glow in their eyes.
“Please, tell us more, Imlan,” Hansarad said, who knew of joinery himself from his youth in the Valley. With a smile he leaned back in his chair and folded his hands in his lap, ready to listen. The kitchen grew very quiet, as even the Rangers tending to the pots on the stove stopped to hear Imlan’s words.
“The regular complement of the garrison of the City is four companies,” Imlan stated.
“Four!” shouted Baran in disbelief. “No, no, there’s got to be more than that.”
“Four companies of regular troops,” Imlan repeated calmly, with Garalf nodding beside him. “One for each gate. But as captain Hansarad just said, nearly a full company of them was sent to Prisca some weeks ago. There are also six companies of watchmen, but they are mostly bullies and thugs, who rely on the terror of the dragon far more than on courage or discipline. And the dragon is dead now. Many of them, too, we killed on the first day, and many others have gone to ground or have fled the City, as we did. But not for the same reason. They are not a force to be reckoned with. They ran as soon as we stood up to them. They will run at the very rumor of you. This is why Machlor sent for the garrisons.”
“This is all very hard to believe,” muttered Berandan.
“Aye, it is,” Baran muttered. “It’s too good to be true.”
“Let me ask you then,” Imlan went on, bristling at their doubts, “if you think you know better, how often you have been in the City.”
“Once, as a boy,” Baran answered.
“Never,” said Berandan.
Hansarad said nothing, but smiled the shadow of a smile at Elénna, who smiled back and inclined her head.
“Then why,” Imlan asked them, “do you think you know the City better than I do? I was born there. I was there before the dragon came, and I am there now that he is gone. For years men like myself and Garalf have been waiting, watching, counting the days and the numbers of the enemy. You know as little of what it is like in there as I know of what it is like out here. Those who guard the gates let few in and fewer out. This is the first time I have been able to get out of the City since the day before it fell. What else have I to do but watch the enemy?
“How many of you Rangers have gotten inside, then out again alive to tell what you have learned? A hundred Rangers is not an army, you say? Perhaps not, but we are not asking you to fight for us. We are asking you to fight with us. But we will fight without you if need be. We do so even now. The enemy’s grip is slipping, captains, and if we push together, they will lose control entirely. Help us fight them.”
With such conviction did Imlan speak that none of them could say anything for quite some time. In their years of outlawry under the dragons, the Rangers had become estranged from the people they lived to protect. So accustomed had they grown to being hunted and betrayed, to being shunned for fear – not of themselves, but of the punishments the dragon’s men inflicted on all caught aiding or welcoming Rangers – that their dealings with them were few and secret. Though the Rangers would fight and die for these people, they did not know them as men and women. And they never expected to hear one speak as boldly as Imlan had done.
“All the more reason,” Elénna finally said, “for us to stop the column from Prisca. It is too late to do anything about the garrison from here, which alone will double the number of regular troops in Narinen –”
“More than double, captain,” Imlan said politely. “A quarter of the regular troops went off to Prisca, and we have killed more than a few.”
“More than double, then,” Elénna said, graciously accepting the correction. “We cannot allow more troops into the City.”
“I agree,” Hansarad said, and looking to Baran and Berandan he could see support in their eyes. “Elénna, Berandan, take your Rangers and intercept that column. Harry them, whittle them down, but do not engage them in force at close quarters. Use your bows and horses and wits. Give them no rest, but drive them forward. And Baran and I will be waiting for you at the meeting of the roads in two days’ time. There we will finish them.”
Without hesitation Berandan and Elénna rose and left the table. Their boots could be heard echoing down the hallway to the front door, as could the orders they began calling out to their Rangers the instant they left the building. When they were nearly ready to leave, Elénna looked up to find Hansarad approaching. She smiled at him and he grinned back in the way that had charmed her since they were children at play in the Valley. Standing close enough so that no one could see, he took her by the hand.  Discretion kept those nearby at the tasks Elénna had assigned them.
"You'll be careful, Elénna," he whispered.
"To do my duty, yes, captain,"  she replied, still smiling and grateful for the cover of night.
"Very well, then,"  he said in a voice more official, but still scarcely above a whisper.  Then he paused and said even more quietly, "just come back."
"I will."
Elénna pressed his hand and let it go, then mounted. She called out to her lieutenant, some yards away, to ask if they were ready.  Once he answered that they were, she turned back to Hansarad, but he was already gone, climbing the steps to the commander's quarters and crossing the porch.  She knew he would not look back.  Back over by the gate, her Rangers and Berandan's were waiting in a column of twos. She joined him at their head and they rode out to begin their journey across country for the Prisca Road.
Back in the kitchen, Hansarad rejoined the others. It was now well after midnight and those who remained decided that rest was what they most needed. They would give thought to their next steps in the morning, but Hansarad stayed in his chair long after the others had gone, watching the Rangers come and go, as they enjoyed their first hot meal in many days.
About what was to come he thought deeply. They had been fortunate so far. The skill and training of the Rangers had won out. They had lost no one and suffered only minor wounds. Surprise had been their ally, but surprise would be difficult to maintain. The dragon’s senior officers in the City and General Machlor in particular would be harder to take unawares, especially if the garrison from Prisca never arrived. That in itself would tell them the Rangers were near, and sometime the next morning the four companies from the fortress would enter the City, swelling the number of regular troops there to as much as seven companies. Not many for a city of that size, but more than enough to hold the gates against a simple assault by a hundred men, even a hundred Rangers.
Much would depend on how effective the rebels in the City had been against Machlor’s troops so far, on how many of his men had been killed or rendered unfit for combat, and on how Machlor saw fit to use them. Would he put them all at the gates? Would he hold some in reserve to reinforce the point upon which the attack fell? Or would he disperse them evenly around Narinen?
The most important question of all, though, was when the other dragons would arrive. It was a thousand leagues and more across the sea to Talor, and it would take time even for a dragon to fly that far. But how long? Perhaps Evénn could say, but Hansarad knew neither where Evénn and the others were nor how to find them. And would the dragon in Talor – the silver dragon was there, Evénn had told him – wait for the other two who were farther away, or was he even now speeding through the darkness alone? If they did not take the City before any of the dragons arrived, there would be no hope of taking it at all. And even if they defeated the dragon’s men, what then? The coming wrath of the dragons would surpass anything Hansarad could imagine, however fresh and bloody in his mind were the tales he had heard of this endless war’s early days. He knew he could not yet comprehend such suffering himself, nor, he was sure, could the rebels who declared they would rather die free than live as slaves a day longer.
“They’ll probably get their wish,” Hansarad muttered to himself ruefully as he tried to rub exhaustion from his eyes. “We will very probably all get their wish.”
It was Dara’s voice. He looked up at her.
“Nothing, Dara. I was just thinking aloud. Have you found something else?”
“Yes, sir, and I knew you would want to see it. It confirms everything Imlan has told us about the troops in the City.”
He took the document from her hand and studied it. The date on it was three weeks earlier, the seal and signature above it General Machlor’s. It detailed the transfer of a full company of soldiers from the City to reinforce the garrison at Prisca, which had lost nearly four fifths of its strength to a large and well-coordinated attack by outlaw Rangers. Hansarad smiled at Machlor’s weak essay in deception and wondered if the fortress’ commander had also smiled when he saw it. He looked back up at Dara. After thanking her once more, he told her that she and Rachor had earned their rest for the night. They could resume their task in the morning. As she walked out of the kitchen, he heard her calling Rachor to tell him that their day was finally done.
With proof now that Imlan’s account was reliable, a great relief came over Hansarad, and he was finally able to quiet his racing mind. Although he had believed Imlan almost from the first and knew that Elénna did so, too, it had been clear that Baran and Berandan were not so sure, even after Imlan had silenced them. With this information all that would change. Tomorrow they could go forward with greater confidence in what Imlan and Garalf had to say about the rising.
Hansarad rose from his chair and left the kitchen. For a few minutes he stood outside on the porch, breathing in the scent of the rain and feeling the breeze that hinted of the sea. All was quiet in the fortress. Going back inside, Hansarad wandered through several dark rooms. In each burned a small oil lamp that shed only enough light to suggest the room and its furnishings. In a corner between two tall windows he could make out a chair, whose outlines made it look well stuffed and comfortable. And so it was, as comfortable as sleep itself. Hansarad sank into it, pulled off his boots, and let sleep take him. His last thought was of the two boy soldiers lying dead by the gate, one of them wearing an inexplicable smile.

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