07 December 2014

The Fulcrum of Dreams -- Chapter 2.2

Arden woke up. It was barely mid-morning and already the sun was blazing outside the old house where they had been hiding for several weeks now. Its thick stone walls and deep roofed porches kept out only the worst of the heat. All the rest of it seemed concentrated in this darkened room. After splashing some water on his face and neck, he crossed to a window. He squinted at the white glare of the sun on the clock calm of the sea. The air was heavy with moisture, and a haze lay all along the shoreline, making the port city of Inshanar only three miles to the south almost invisible. It was going to be another sullen, scalding day.
“You were dreaming?” said Evénn, who sat gazing calmly out of another window.
“Yes,” Arden replied and cast a half suspicious glance the elf’s way. At times it seemed to him that Evénn could perceive his thoughts. More than once in the last nine months Arden had awoken to find the elf’s eyes upon him and a thoughtful look upon his face.
“Was it a pleasant dream?”
“Yes and no.”
“Ah, one of those.”
“This dream is always one of those.”
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
“No, Evénn, not this one.”
Evénn regarded him curiously for a moment.
“It must have been a special dream then,” he said.
“It is,” Arden answered. “It always is.”
“You’ve had it more than once, then?”
“Every year on the eve of summer since she died,” Arden said and could not conceal his sadness.
“Ah,” said Evénn.
Arden glanced at him and saw that he took his meaning. Then after a moment he asked the question that had long been on his mind.
“Can you read my thoughts, Evénn?”
“What?” Evénn replied, like a man recalled from a dream himself. “No, not precisely. I would have to know you a very long time to do that. Mostly I can glean your feelings, and when you sleep, they are no longer fenced in by your waking mind. I know that as you slept you felt many emotions. At one point I felt the greatest relief in you, as if you had cast a great burden from your heart. Then a few moments later you were suddenly very happy. But what was your burden, Arden, and what was your joy? For that I could not tell.”
“Silence and love,” Arden answered at once, surprising himself.
“How heavy a thing silence can be. It seems to be nothing, but grows only more burdensome as time passes, while love, which seems to be everything all at once, is lighter than air. Worst of all is the silence that seeks to conceal love. Few have the strength to bear that weight of grief.”
“Indeed. And the most joyous of loves is the one that breaks its long silence.”
“Why, Arden,” Evénn said with a smile, “you are beginning to talk like an elf.”
“I speak only the truth, and that we know as well as you do.”
“True enough,” Evénn replied, “but it is also true that just before you awoke you were somewhat troubled and puzzled. What happened then?”
“I don’t know,” Arden answered, wondering if this was the question Evénn had been working towards all along. “Understand: the dream is never quite the same, and I am aware it is a dream while I dream it. But this…”
“This was very different.”
“How so?”
“For an instant I felt that someone was watching us, or knew we were near and was angry that he could not find us. That was entirely new. But I saw no one and the feeling passed quickly.”
“What do you think it was?”
“The displeasure was so intense, and so full of ill will. I think it was one of the dragons.”
Evénn nodded slowly and emphatically.
“One of them is looking for you, my friend, just as the red one did. The blood of the black dragon which was spilled on you as a boy puts them on the scent. If the one who seeks you finds you, he will also find us. Then they will all come. We cannot defeat them all at once. They are too powerful.”
“Is anything with them that simple?”
“No, surely not, but how their malice will work in this we shall have to wait and see. Be watchful, Arden. Do not underestimate them again. Not even in our dreams can we make the world as we wish it, and the dragons are mightier than we are.”
Pained by Evénn’s remark on dreams, Arden kept quiet. He wondered if Evénn knew just how true his words were, and if in his five thousand years he had learned much of the world of spirits. But life was so different for elves that perhaps death was as well. And how did one who almost never slept know so much of dreams?
“Arden?” said Evénn. “Are you listening to me, my friend? We must continue to be vigilant. You must tell me if anything like this happens in your dreams again. One misstep could cost us everything, us and everyone else.”
“I know,” Arden replied. “I’ll tell you about anything else.”
“Good. I am glad to hear it. I know that it is a strange feeling to think you are being hunted in this way, by a creature who can track you down with only his mind’s eye if you’re not careful.”
“It is. I am used to men tracking me, men I can see and hear coming. And I resent this presence in my mind. My dreams have long been my only sanctuary.”
“Yes, great comfort can be found in dreams. There we can see and speak with those we lost long ago. Life would be unbearable without such a refuge.”
Hearing these words, Arden knew that Evénn understood, that whatever elvish dreams were like, they had this much in common with the dreams of men. It comforted him to know this, for Evénn’s sake, since he had lost his wife and children in the first war with the dragons centuries in the past. If the elf could visit them in dreams as Arden did Sorrow, perhaps that was some small solace for their loss.
“They are hunting for me, too, you know. I can sense their minds reaching out, grasping for mine. So you’re not alone in that.”
“That is good to know, I guess,” Arden answered.
“They’re back,” Evénn said, looking outside.
Arden turned back to the window. Looking from the half-darkness of the room into the glare off the sea blinded him at first. As his eyes adjusted, the stark silhouettes walking up from the beach softened and became Agarwen, Jalonn, and Niall. Argos and the wolf paced along beside them. They had been on patrol all night between the house and the port. They all looked tired and hot. Sweat glistened on their faces, and the tongues of the wolf and Argos were hanging out.
“I’d better get them some water,” Evénn said and left the room, disappearing into the cooler darkness towards the rear of the house. Before long Arden heard Evénn working the well pump in the kitchen. Years of disuse and exposure to the salt air had rusted it, and it screeched as he moved the handle up and down, but the water it drew was cool and uncommonly sweet for a well so near the ocean.
Jalonn opened the door and entered just as Evénn returned. Gratefully he took the cup of water offered to him, then threw off his heavy cloak and sat down against the back wall of the room. Niall and Agarwen, too, accepted water from Evénn, while Argos and the wolf trotted into the kitchen to the bowls which had been set out for them. At this time of day the kitchen, on the western side of the house, was the coolest room. So they did not return, but stretched out gratefully on the cold stone floor.
“Even this far south,” Jalonn said, “it’s early for it to be this hot, and last night was just the eve of summer.”
“Judging by the look of the town,” Niall remarked sourly, “I’d say it’s been rather hot here a few times already.”
“Well, if so,” Agarwen muttered, “it is we who lit the fire.”
Jalonn gave her a sharp look. Evénn sighed and turned back to the window. But Arden grew angry and rebuked her.
“You speak with the tongue of the dragon, Agarwen, as if we were the evildoers here.”
“No, Arden, no,” she said – and the pain she felt at his words showed through – “thousands, tens of thousands, of our people are already dead. Our proudest city lies in ruins. When you and Evénn killed the red dragon, the people danced in the streets. They rose up in all their numbers and found that they were strong. They overthrew or drove out their oppressors. Then they learned that their strength was just an illusion Narinen fell once more and this time it is utterly destroyed.”
“Except for the tower,” Jalonn said quietly, but firmly.
“Yes, Master Jalonn, except for the tower, from what we hear, but I don’t know how many besides us see it as a sign of hope. What they see are the three dragons crossing this wide land, killing and destroying. What they see is more troops landing every week in numbers they cannot combat. And where were we when Narinen fell? While the people there whispered, then shouted, the name of the slayer of dragons, we vanished. Where was the dragonslayer, where were we, when the dragons came again? They are paying a terrible price, and still they fight.”
“That was foreseen by the council,” Arden replied. “We knew this would happen. We could not remain in Narinen, because we could not risk encountering all the dragons at once. The red dragon by himself was nearly too much for us, even though we had the sword and the bow. We need to fight them each alone.”
“I know that, Arden. It’s just that the people’s suffering is appalling. It’s one thing to talk about that in a fortress far away and another to witness. I wish we could do more to defend them.”
“We all wish that, Agarwen,” Evénn said. “In the first war with them the suffering was much the same, and there was nothing at all we could do until the weapons were ready. That took a hundred years of the sun. That was a very long time. In that time, much as now, all we could do was strike at their servants and try not to draw the dragons’ eyes too much upon us.”
“We’re Rangers, Evénn. We’re supposed to protect them. We want to protect them,” she protested. Her shoulders sagged and for a moment she bowed her head in near despair.
“Of course you do,” Evénn said in answer. “So do I, but we will do them more harm than good if we die before the dragons. What will remain to them then?”
“I grew up much farther south than we are now,” Jalonn interrupted, speaking slowly. As always, he had been watching his companions with a careful eye, and now he let the languid accents of his youth draw his words out long enough for them all to turn their eyes to him. “Hot weather puts people on edge. In a summer like this one, even the best of friends must mind their tempers and guard their tongues.”
As he said this he looked directly at Arden, who went over to Agarwen and whispered a few words of apology in her ear. She nodded and grasped his hand briefly. When she let go, they walked away from each other.
Niall frowned as Arden passed him. He had been expecting hard words for some time now, and regretted his part in provoking them. The last four months had been difficult. The importance of their errand compelled them to do nothing while others fought and suffered. This was not the way of Rangers. To stand between the people and evil was their calling, particularly in times like these when fear led men to shun them. Yet again and again on their journey south they had watched villages plundered, farms burning, unequal battles between soldiers and rebels untutored in war. They held aloof, moving swiftly through the woods. Almost every night they saw distant flames rising. The companions moved on.
But for all they had witnessed along the way, it was the beginning and end of their road they found the hardest to bear. At first their progress was easy, and they saw many things fit to lift up their hearts. Everywhere the servants of the dragon were in retreat, hunted, besieged. It was their guardhouses, barracks, and homes that were in flame, a vengeance in full measure for decades of tyranny. Small parties of Rangers appeared from the Green Hills, and the rebels welcomed their aid. The less cautious would have let these events tempt them with joy, but Evénn and his companions were awaiting the storm.
It broke over the City and swept it away. From the ashes of Narinen the dragons came to spread fire across the land. Their soldiers came, too, first the red dragon’s emerging from the fortresses and hiding places in which they had sought refuge, then the silver dragon’s, sailing in from Talor beyond the sea. The rebellion became more desperate, a battle only for those stern and ruthless enough to endure freedom’s bitter cost. Others questioned the wisdom of hope.
The Rangers had pressed on, heading for the port of Inshanar, six hundred miles south of Narinen, where Evénn told them his ship, the Spindrift, visited once a year in the last weeks of spring, in the hope that he would appear with the weapons that might save them all. In the month since they arrived, they had had little to do but wait and watch impotently, unhappily, while the war, which they had started and in which they could take no part, grew steadily more cruel. The heat and the failure of the Spindrift to arrive only made things worse. Agarwen and Arden, Niall thought, were simply the first to voice the displeasure they all felt.
But summer began today and still they waited in this old house by the sea, vainly watching for the Spindrift’s sails to break the horizon. Other ships had come to Inshanar and gone again in the last month. Troops landed a week ago and marched off inland at once. A few small merchant vessels coasted by. But of Evénn’s ship there was no sign.
To all appearances the Spindrift served the dragons as a packet ship, transporting official goods, messages, and couriers back and forth across the seas. In truth her crew was composed almost exclusively of elves, many of whom had sailed with Auducar, her captain in one ship or another for centuries. At least that had been true twenty five years ago, when Evénn, Laindon, and Marek, disembarked here to seek the sword and bow. Through all the years in between, she had sailed again and again into Inshanar, her place as a packet secured through bribery both subtle and immense. Auducar, once his official duties were discharged, would send cryptically bland letters to obscure towns across Narinen. No matter what words he used, there was only one message, that the Spindrift had kept her rendezvous and would return next year. Only last fall Evénn had been sitting by a window in the tavern of a remote western town with Auducar’s most recent letter in his hand. He had just finished reading it, and was wondering if he would ever find the bow, when he saw a Ranger come riding down the street.
That was nine months ago now, and he and the Rangers had been through much together. But in the last few days his companions had begun to question him with silent looks. Even Jalonn had done so once or twice.
“The Spindrift will return,” was all he would say.
Despite his words Evénn was growing concerned himself. Without the Spindrift they could not cross the sea to Talor, where they hoped to meet the next dragon, alone. A longing to see his own people again was also upon him. For twenty five years he had been in Narinen, cut off from all word of home. There was a nightmare of fear, too. He did not know if the dragons had discovered his folk’s hidden sanctuary beneath the mountains, far from the light of day and the forests and seas which the elves so loved. Only at night could they slip out singly or in small groups to gaze upon the stars and nourish their hearts, or spy out the ways of the enemy. There in that buried fortress, if it still existed, the last of the ancient weapons awaited the companions. Once they had the spear as well, they would be fully armed against the dragons.
All through this sweltering day they waited again, but no matter how steadily Evénn gazed out at the horizon, not even the eyes of an elf could see beyond the curve of the earth itself. After Arden’s conversation with Agarwen, they all had little to say. They slept and watched by turns, while Evénn remained by the window. After sunset, Niall, Arden, and Evénn set out to scout southwards, accompanied by Argos and the wolf. They followed the line of the coastal road towards Inshanar, keeping some forty yards to the east of it. By the time they were halfway to the city, they were in the deep, deep dusk just before the fall of night that makes daylight seem a distant memory.
“Down,” Evénn hissed suddenly and threw himself to the ground, where the rest joined him an instant later. They all knew enough to trust his senses in the dark. From behind the roots of a magnificent beech, as majestic as any queen, they lay watching the road. Soon the wolf and hound raised their heads and looked northwards. Shortly thereafter Niall and Arden heard the sound as well. The pounding of hooves coming fast down the road. Someone was riding them hard, desperately so. What message they carried or whom they were fleeing to ride like that in the darkness, Niall wondered. His horsemaster’s ear told him that the horses were near exhaustion. He could hear them begin to stumble a time or two as they approached, then catch themselves. Then they emerged from the night and passed the hiding place, riding full out and looking neither left nor right. At this distance Niall could not make out their faces, though he was sure the second rider was a woman. Their dark cloaks flowed behind them in the wind of their passing. They were armed with swords and bows, but Niall could hear no arrows clattering in their quivers as they swept past.
“Those are Rangers,” he whispered.
“Aye,” Arden replied with worry and frustration alike in his voice.
“Let them pass,” said Evénn. “We must remain hidden. They are being chased.”
The sound of more hoof beats then became clear to Arden and Niall. A dozen or so horses were rushing down the road in equal haste to pursue the Rangers. Presently they came into sight. A pair of mountain wolves accompanied them, and Argos and the wolf growled low in their throats. At the last moment, when the troopers had almost gone by, one of the wolves stopped suddenly and raised his snout to sniff the air. He howled. The column of horsemen slowed slightly and began wheeling to the left in time to see both their wolves dashing from the road straight for a gigantic beech some distance away.
“Damn,” said Arden. “Argos, go.” Rising to one knee, he strung an arrow in his bow, as the hound and wolf leaped out to meet the enemy. The dragon’s men had no clear idea of where they were, and had little chance against three skilled bowmen hiding in the darkness, one with the night eyes of an owl. It cost them more than half their men to learn precisely where the bowmen were, concealed within the great spread of the beech’s drooping boughs. Still fifty yards away, they spurred their mounts forward. Unwise. None of them lived to reach the tree.
From beneath its graceful branches, which touched the ground to sow a new generation of beeches, the companions stepped out to examine the bodies of their enemies. The only sounds were the quick soft footfalls of the troopers’ horses on the wet turf and the jingling of their harnesses. The wolf and hound, their opponents also dead, sniffed about among the bodies. All were dead or nearly so. Arden sighed heavily, not entirely pleased or displeased.
“Any sign of the Rangers, Evénn?” he asked without looking up from the body of the nearest trooper, the last to fall.
The elf was staring off southward towards Inshanar. At Arden’s question he held up his free hand for silence. Then he turned to him.
“Their hoof beats are fading. I can barely hear them now. But they’re still on the road to the port, and they have not slowed down. Their haste is great.”
“It’s good the port is close,” Niall said. “They’ll ride those horses to death before long. Even now they may be ruined.”
“Your love of horses speaks now, riding master,” Evénn replied, a gentle smile clearly to be heard in his voice. “But you are right. Those horses are near collapse.”
“But who are the riders?” Arden asked. “And why are they in such haste? What’s so important in Inshanar that they risk everything on the road? It is reckless.”
“Are they more reckless than we are? We seek to fight fight legends.” Evénn asked, still smiling.
A voice then answered, chanting softly in the darkness:

Reckless they were for recklessness’ sake, to rid all of dragons,
Of harness and chains, and unmake the evil that made them.

Evénn laughed quietly and Arden smiled. They turned to Niall. For the voice had been his.
“My mother’s uncle was Dorlas the singer,” he said. “He was a kind, great-hearted man, and he taught me many songs when I was a lad. How I miss him.”
“In many ways,” Arden said, reflecting how much he still had to learn about Niall even now. He had no idea that old Dorlas was his uncle. That explained the name of his little boy. It also reminded Arden of his friend Hedále, who was supposed to start his apprenticeship with the renowned singer the day the dragons came. “In many ways that tale, your tale, Evénn, is much the same as ours.”
“No, Arden,” he answered, “it is the same. No matter how long the respite, the tale is precisely the same. Though all the great sea sunders us from the lands where I walked with my old companions, our paths are the same. Nothing is ended, nothing begun.”
“My uncle would have said the same,” Niall said.
“What else would a singer say?” Arden answered, drawing a laugh from Niall. “Evénn, can you still hear the horses?”
“No. They have stopped or are gone beyond my hearing.”
“Then we should see if these troopers have any papers on them that might tell us something, and I need to replenish my quiver. It has grown bare of late.”
“Agreed,” the elf replied.
So they quickly searched the fallen riders, gathering food or arrows from them and closing their eyes. With small spells and soothing tones Evénn and Niall coaxed over all the horses remaining nearby. Neither on horse or rider did they find any useful information. After they had done with the horses, they came back to Arden, who was finishing up with the bodies.
“These troopers are the same as the rest we’ve seen recently. They belong to the silver dragon,” he said as he looked up at them and held up a cloak he had pulled from a nearby corpse. He pointed to the small dragon embroidered in silver thread on its breast. It gleamed faintly in the starlight.
“We should change our red dragon’s cloaks for these. There aren’t very many of his men left around here now. The silver are far more common. We will arouse less suspicion. I’ve gathered enough for us all.”
Arden paused again.
“What is it, Arden?” Evénn asked. “What troubles you?”
“I don’t know. Something just tells me we should go after those two Rangers, that we’re supposed to go after them.”
The three of them stood for a time without a word. Then Niall spoke.
“I have the same feeling.”
“As do I,” Evénn agreed. “But where have they gone?”
“Into the port, I would imagine,” Arden said. “Why else would they take the road?”
“He’s right,” Niall said to Evénn, who nodded.
“Well,” Evénn said, “if we’re going into Inshanar, that changes everything. This is no longer just a patrol to scout out the land for threats. Inshanar, as we have seen these past weeks, is in turmoil. No one rules in there, neither the dragon’s men, nor the rebels, nor those who have abandoned the rebellion from fear. More than once the silver dragon has come there, yet he has not destroyed it. Instead he has started fires and watched, as if the disorder and strife please him, and he means to leave the city to destroy itself.”
“We must go in sooner or later,” Niall added. “Your ship will be here soon, Evénn, and we must find those Rangers to learn why they were so desperate to get there. Who knows what news they might bring?”
“True enough,” said Arden, “but Evénn is right. The city is tearing itself apart. Getting in will be easy. The gates have stood open and unguarded day and night these last three weeks. The greater danger lies within. Getting out again by ship or by foot will be more difficult.”
“So we should not go alone, without Jalonn and Agarwen. We must go soon, however. Those Rangers will be in peril. We have talked too long as it is.”
“You two go ahead,” Evénn said. “I’ll go back to get the others.”
“Where shall we meet,” Arden asked, “or shall we wait for you here?”
“No, we can’t wait,” Niall insisted. “It will take at least an hour for them all to return with the horses.”
“Down by the harbor is a tavern,” Evénn said, “called the Dark Lantern. We can meet there.”
“And if it’s closed?” Arden asked.
“Oh, it won’t be,” Evénn said laughing. “The Dark Lantern never closes.” Then he took three of the cloaks Arden had gathered, and he and the wolf ran off.
“He seems to spend a lot of time in taverns. Wasn’t he in a tavern right before you met him?” asked Niall.
“He saw me fighting the troopers through the window and decided to help, eventually.”
“I guess when you’re immortal, you have lots of time to kill.”
“Glad to hear you joking again.”
“Hmmm,” Niall grunted. “And if we stand here too much longer, we may be too late to help those Rangers.”
“Right, let’s go,” Arden answered. “Come on, Argos.”

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