07 December 2014

The Fulcrum of Dreams -- Chapter 2.3

With that Arden and Niall put on the cloaks of the silver dragon, and chose two of the dead troopers’ horses. At first the horses shied when they tried to mount them, but Niall softly repeated a spell he knew to calm them. Arden and Niall then spent a few minutes talking to them. They stroked their heads and necks, and allowed them to become familiar with their new riders.
Once mounted, they moved away from the beech tree and down the road at a trot. It did not take long to cover the mile and a half to Inshanar. They slowed a little as they neared the open gates. No guards were in sight. No torches were burning on the walls or in the tunnel behind the gates. It looked just as it had every night since they had arrived almost a month ago. They loosened their swords and daggers and entered.
“Much depends on whom we meet first,” Arden said to Niall in a hushed voice as they walked their horses inside. “The rebels will attack us, dressed as we are. The soldiers will accept us at first, but may ask questions we cannot answer. Those who have given up the rebellion will fear us because they’ll know troopers will despise and distrust them. We won’t get much of a welcome in any event.”
“No, but whoever meets us first will probably have met the other two already,” Niall replied.
“If they came this way.”
“It’s the shortest path, and what else can we do?”
Emerging from the tunnel, they found the city only slightly less dark. Inshanar had always been a small port used mostly by fishermen and a few merchants. Its chief importance lay in the sheltered but small anchorage it offered to ships moving up and down the coast to trade. There they could find refuge from a storm or a small but lively market for their wares that could carry them through until the wind better suited their needs. Messages could be sent by horse inland or to other cities to the north and south. In the time of the dragon Inshanar had also provided a useful, out of the way, spot for packets, like the Spindrift, to land or pick up the many spies and hunters who roamed the Land of Narinen and sought to root out the discontented or outlaws like the Rangers. Both now and in the days of the Republic Inshanar was most well known as a haven whose quays were lined with taverns frequented by men hardened by the sea. Ships of the Republic had put into Inshanar only at need, and the officers never let their seamen out of sight while there.
After a few minutes Arden and Niall found themselves at a crossroads, looking down unpaved streets wide enough for two carts to pass each other with care. The buildings on either side had white washed walls, which were framed by dark wooden beams, and were just tall enough to keep the light of the waning moon out of the street. A few upper windows were open to catch the hope of cooler air from the sea breeze. Here and there a ragged curtain fluttered. But no light shone anywhere. Nothing moved. Not a dog barked. All was still and silent.
“This isn’t good,” Niall muttered. “Whoever claims this part of the city, they’re letting us come far enough in to trap us.”
“Aye,” said Arden. He was looking down at Argos, who was alert, but had not growled once. “He hasn’t picked up anything yet, though.”
“Perhaps we should have brought the wolf instead,” Niall responded. “These cloaks and Argos don’t suit each other. No one will know what to make of us.”
“That could be a good thing, under the circumstances.”
“We could also get shot full of arrows, under the circumstances.”
Arden laughed softly, but the sound was out of place in this empty street and seemed to fall dead upon the ground before them. Yet Arden knew well the truth in Niall’s jest, and brought his horse to a halt as they reached a cross street, the first they had come to. They sat and studied the shadows around them.
“The harbor will be this way,” he finally said, gesturing to his left.
They reined their horses around and slowly moved out of the crossroads. Twenty yards from it, a voice cried out to them to stand their ground. Men appeared from doorways all around them, dragon’s men, and both Arden and Niall felt sure that bowmen stood hidden inside the open windows above them. Argos snarled but made no move.
“Whom do you serve?” Arden called out to the men, refusing to let them speak first.
A figure stepped forward. Now that they were on a street, which ran east and west, the light of the moon, four nights past full, illuminated the man dimly. Arden could make out the lower half of his face and caught the glimmer of eyes beneath his hood as he raised his head to Arden. A white beard, an older man then, and perhaps less likely to be hasty.
“For many years we served the red dragon,” he said in a tired voice, “but no one has come here since he fell. At least no one has stayed. So mostly we serve ourselves and wait.”
“We did not expect to find any of you still here,” said Arden and Niall laughed, earning himself a long stare from the man. “The silver dragon of Talor is our master. We come seeking two Rangers. They fled before us into this city not quite two hours ago. Have you seen them?”
“Oh, I doubt two Rangers fled before the two of you,” the man replied.
“We had a dozen companions to start with,” Arden answered him calmly. “They are all dead, but our duty is not yet done.”
“And a dog I see, a wolfhound.”
“You should read a book or two before you burn them,” Niall broke in. “Wolves are more rare across the sea than here. Many of us use dogs.”
“I read many a book before you were born, lad.”
“And since?”
“Enough,” Arden barked at Niall, then turned back to the man. “Pardon him. He lost his brother earlier tonight. So he is rather eager to find these Rangers just now. Have you seen them or not?”
The man looked at him for some time before answering.
“Yes, as you say, not quite two hours ago they came through here riding hard. Before we could get into position, they burst through our line, killing three of my men, my youngest son among them,” he said, and flashed another hard look at Niall, who turned away as if ashamed of his former words. “They went towards the harbor. I sent six men after them, but since they have not returned –”
“They are likely dead now.”
“Will you let us pass, then? We have no papers. We’ve been chasing those Rangers for four days and could not stop to secure passes. We will share the bounty with you.”
Again the man paused. Arden sensed that he was weary and grieving and did not much care whom he let pass. For tonight at least his duty was a formality which he performed to keep worse things at bay.
“Kill them if you can, and keep the bounty,” was all he said and stepped aside. His men also backed away.
“Three more of us will be coming this way before long,” Arden said, “and they will have a wolf with them. Let them pass, too, if you will. We may need their help.”
“You will,” the man answered as Arden, Niall, and Argos moved off.
“Sorry about your son,” Niall said as he urged his horse back to a trot.
“And your brother,” came the answer.
Inshanar was not large and presently they noticed that the houses and shops with dwellings above them were giving way to storehouses with docks for loading and unloading what few goods were brought in by sea. In the moonlight Niall and Arden could see the crest of the dragon on some of the doors, but the streets here were as deserted as when they had first entered the city. Midnight was well past when they came to the harbor itself.
True to their reputation the dockyards of Inshanar teemed with taverns and other establishments even less well esteemed. Here Arden and Niall came upon the first lights they had seen in the city. Braziers smoked and guttered outside open doors, shedding a faint light upon the cobblestones. After some searching they found a tavern which had a dark lantern hanging from a hook beside its door, its hatch slightly open to reveal the thinnest beam of light. No name could they see above the door or on either side. Now and then a raucous laughter erupted within. A fiddler was playing soft and low.
“This looks like it,” Niall said, gesturing at the lantern as he dismounted.
“I’d say so.”
“I like the look of it,” Niall remarked and walked in, ignoring Arden’s glance.
The name was surely apt, as they saw once inside. All light within came from dark lanterns, several behind the bar, each barely open, and a few more scattered about the tables. No one sat at those tables. Even that little light was too much. The air was thick and humid, smelling of salt, sweat, fish, and a hint of blood. Over it all lay a reek of pipe smoke that curled and spun when the patrons moved about or a breeze dared enter.
From the back of the room men with their backs to the wall and faces to the door watched Arden and Niall cross the room. If either looked back, their stares did not waver. These men, whoever they were, were unafraid. Others seemed more uneasy, keeping their backs turned or shading their eyes.
“What’ll it be,” said the innkeeper to Arden and Niall when they reached the bar. Though he was hurrying past, his pale blue eyes never left them as he moved, talking, pouring, joking, winking at the women. He never missed a customer, never brought the wrong drink, never the wrong change. The room was packed, but he was in control of it. His eyes seemed to look at them from far, far away.
“Come on, what’ll it be?” he asked as he strode past them again. “Don’t have all night here.”
“Two mugs of beer,” Niall said, smirking at the thought that night was all they ever had in places like this one.
The mugs appeared. Arden laid a Republican silver penny down in front of the innkeeper.
“Staying for a while then,” he said and was gone, talking and pouring, always dallying a bit if the customers were young women.
“We don’t see many of those anymore,” said a man beside Arden, and leaned over his pipe to peer at it, “especially not in hands like yours.”
“I imagine not,” Arden answered, doing his best to ignore him while he looked down the long bar towards the door and window. Two or three seats down was the source of the laughter they had heard coming in. A tall man, surrounded by a half a dozen listeners, was telling stories, not of great heroes and events in distant times, but of the everyday lives of the men and women known to the patrons of the inn. As he spoke he waved his hands about and swore frequently. Arden watched him closely, found that he was amusing, and knew how to hold his audience’s eye. So much the better, he thought, since that would mean fewer on him and Niall, who gave every appearance that he was minding his business and enjoying his beer.
“Well, they’re not here,” Niall murmured as if to himself, “but the beer is good.”
Again the innkeeper strode past, looking Arden in the eye the whole way. Behind the storyteller he stopped and opened one of the lanterns wide to fetch a light for someone's pipe.  In the sudden brightness, Arden saw shock flicker in Niall's eyes, followed by an involuntary glance at Arden. At once he looked down at his mug of beer.  Arden turned and there in the light of the open lantern, beyond the storyteller, he saw what Niall had seen. His breath hissed sharply between his teeth.
There in a small open spot of floor between the bar and tables a young man and woman were dancing to the fiddler's honey-slow tune.  It was a traditional dance that everyone learned as a child and danced a thousand times in a lifetime.  Arden had done so when a young man, as had Niall, and even Master Jalonn once confessed that he knew it. But never had Arden seen it danced so beautifully.  For the young couple moved through its slow turns and half steps with such harmony that they seemed made for each other, to dance this dance together. Every touch, every movement intimated their love.
The young man was tall, his brown hair shaggy, his beard untrimmed, his manner proud until he smiled at her. But it was she who had caught Niall’s eye.  From beneath the graceful arch of her brows and long lashes glittered the bright green eyes of Sorrow as they had known her so many years ago. And when she returned the young man's smile, she was as radiant as Sorrow had been in her joy.  Though her hair was straight and golden, and though she was not as tall, her face and form were those of Sorrow.  As they ended their dance in each other's arms, Arden's heart flinched to see them kiss and smile once more, but he could not look away.
Then the dark lantern was closed and night returned to the inn.  Niall was studying the patrons and sipping his beer.  He did not meet Arden's gaze.
“What do you see, Niall?”
“The men at the back wall almost certainly know about the Rangers, but they’re not the sort who like questions.”
“And the innkeeper has kept his eye on us, like he sees us as one bit of news that fits another. So he knows something, and knows we’re looking for it.”
“But he never stands still, and there is no privacy here.”
“So then you better talk to me,” a voice beside him said. It was the storyteller. “I can tell you what you want to know.”
“And what would that be?” Niall asked as he swung around to face him.
The storyteller gave them the smirk and sidelong glance commonly reserved for idiots. He tossed his head towards the door, and held up two fingers.
“Outside,” he said in a voice that could just be heard over the fiddle and commotion of voices, and walked back to his drink. He finished it, leaned over to the young man sitting next to him, but facing the young girl. With a hand on his shoulder he said something in his ear, at which the young man turned his head slightly and nodded. The storyteller clapped him on the shoulder, looked up at the girl and smiled. She smiled back and he headed for the door, ignoring Arden and Niall entirely. Arden was not watching, but had crouched down to talk to Argos, who lay between them and the crowd. All his attention seemed engaged with the dog.
A minute later Niall tapped Arden on the shoulder and started moving towards the door. Arden and Argos followed. Unlike in most crowds, Niall noticed, not everyone immediately stepped aside for men wearing the dragon’s cloak. Some did, with fearful looks, but others he had to shove aside. A few he asked to let them pass. Clearly the docks were not under the control of the dragon’s men, if they ever had been. But Niall perceived no threat here aside from the danger such places always hold for the unwary and the foolish. As they stepped out into the street again and he could see the first hint of dawn reflected in the sea, he remembered something his father had told him as a child, the day he began to teach him to sail.
“There are three things you must remember about the sea, Niall,” he had said. “It never sleeps, never rests, and it’s not your friend.”
For the people of the docks and the fishermen these facts governed their outlooks and their lives, and they applied them to far more than the sea. Some accepted them, some feared them, but no one ignored them. They knew that life, like the sea, could turn fierce in an instant, and all they could do was trim their sails and run before the storm or die. To them the dragons and the rebellion were both storms to run before.
Niall and Arden looked up and down the street for the storyteller, but Argos found him first. A puff of pipe smoke from around a corner several taverns away brought his head up and his ears forward, and he began running down the street towards it. Arden and Niall followed cautiously. As they turned the corner, the storyteller withdrew further up the alley, beckoning to them. In the narrowest part of the alley he stopped. Crates and barrels were stacked high along either wall.
“What do you want to know?” he asked.
“How much?” Niall answered.
The storyteller gave them that look again.
“Less than you think. What do you want to know?”
Niall did not answer. Arden, his hand on the hilt of his sword, was looking up and down the alley and scanning the roof lines above them.
“Let me tell you something,” the storyteller went on. “You’re looking for two Rangers who entered the city tonight. Why, I don’t know. I don’t care. Am I right?”
He asked but it was not a question.
“The bounty on a Ranger’s head is high,” Niall said, playing his part. “The bounty on two –”
“Let me tell you something else,” he interrupted Niall impatiently, waving his hands at him to stop. “I know you’re Rangers, too. No two dragon’s men, no two hunters even, would have come down here alone, not in the middle of the night. They wouldn’t pay in Republican silver. And that dog? Don’t even try to tell me you’re not Rangers.”
Niall opened his mouth, but before he could reply, the storyteller went on.
“Lie to me again and we’re done,” he said, emphasizing his point with a finger in Niall’s shoulder.
Niall closed his mouth and turned to Arden, who was now watching them both closely. He shrugged and Niall turned back to the storyteller.
“Listen,” the storyteller continued, “I can find them for you. Quicker than you can. Even with the silver and gold you have in your purse, you’ll have a hard time learning what you want to know. Down here the people don’t much care about your war or your rebellion. A lot of them think killing the dragon only made things worse. Three times the dragons have come here since then, and the word is they’re coming back. A lot of these people will take your gold, then sell you to the dragon’s men as soon as you’re out of sight. I won’t.”
“Why not?” Arden asked.
“Because I need you to tell me something. That’s all I want. Then I’ll help you and we’re done.”
“What do you want to know?”
The storyteller studied them both, his gaze drifting back and forth between them. Then he pointed at Arden.

“I want to know where he got that sword.”

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