07 December 2014

The Fulcrum of Dreams -- Chapter 3.1


“My sword?” Arden asked in surprise.
“It’s not your sword,” the storyteller said. “It’s my uncle’s.”
Arden looked in astonishment at the hilt of the sword his hand rested upon. He had carried it since the Fall. To him it had always been the Captain’s sword, ever since he had watched the Captain of the Mountain Gate of Narinen wield it with skill and courage the day the dragons came. Once the Gate was broken, the Captain had led them in a desperate struggle to hold back the enemy for as long as they could. He and every other man there that day had perished when a building collapsed upon them and blocked the street they were defending, every man but Arden, who pulled the sword from the rubble which denied the dragon’s men entry. He carried it in the Captain’s memory, but to this day he did not know the man’s name.
“What was his name?” Arden stammered.
“Damlann. He was my father’s brother, twenty two years my senior,” the storyteller replied. “I was a very small boy when my father and I put him on a ship for the City. After that we seldom saw him. His duties kept him away for years on end, but whenever he came home, he told me tales of the City and of other places he had been. That’s where I got my taste for stories, he told them so well. Then the City fell and he did not return again.”
Arden studied the storyteller’s face as he spoke. It was a hard face, line by cares and the desperate laughter of tavern dwellers, but in it he could catch a reflection of the Captain’s features. He knew the man spoke the truth. They stood looking at each other. Niall had retreated with Argos to the dockside end of the alley where they could keep watch for the others.
“How do you know this is his sword?”
“The green jewel in the pommel. When Janan – the innkeeper, I mean – opened the lantern behind me, the gem caught the light and then my eye. From the time I was a boy, I have remembered how that gem flashed. I looked at you, too, Ranger, but you had eyes only for my brother, Torran’s wife.”
Arden was startled and abashed to hear how obvious his attention had been.
“I meant no offense.”
“No,” he answered, “you didn’t. I could tell it was a ghost you were seeing, that you have a tale of your own to tell. Many do.”
Arden stared at this man who seemed to see so clearly.
“But that’s not the story I want to hear.”
“I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
“Good. Then we can do business. But not here. The sun’ll be up soon. I know a place.”
“There’ll be three more coming to meet us here. They’ll be dressed as we are, and will have a wolf with them.”
“My brother can wait for them. Leave the dog – what’s his name?”
“Leave the dog with him, so they’ll trust him. He can bring them to us.”
“Wait here,” the storyteller said and left to return to the tavern.
After he left, Arden joined Niall at the end of the alley. To Niall’s look of inquiry, he answered that he trusted the storyteller, and that was enough for Niall. In a few minutes the man returned with his brother from the tavern. To Arden’s relief the young woman was not with them. He felt sure he would have out blushed the approaching dawn, if he saw her just now.
They left Argos with Torran who sat down on a piling by the water. The hound quickly took to the young man, and sat beside him. After they fetched their horses, the storyteller led them along the many twists and turns of the narrow ways near Inshanar’s docks. Finally they came to a door in a high brick wall, twice the height of a man. It all looked as sorry as most of what they had seen since entering the town, but it seemed at least strong and secure.
But once they were through the door, their impressions changed. For a garden planted with flowers of many hues and scents greeted them. White roses were everywhere, climbing trellises all around the outer walls. Between the walls and the brick house at the center stretched a rich, green lawn, and on one end of the house they saw a spacious roofed porch, on which stood an eight sided table as wide as Arden was tall. The last thing they had been expecting to find near the docks was a peaceful refuge, secluded from the noise and filth of the streets outside.
“Have a seat,” the storyteller said, gesturing to the porch. “I’ll see to your horses.”
At the table Niall and Arden found themselves enjoying the morning. Within these walls it was serene and for a while they nearly forgot the cares which brought them here so unexpectedly, the dragons, the war, the ship, and the two Rangers they were seeking. This garden was an island in the midst of a calm sea. They took pleasure in it while they could, but neither Arden nor Niall were the men of peace they had been raised to be. Before long their thoughts again reached out beyond the walls to seek for their troubles.
The door to the house opened and the young woman they had seen in the tavern came out. Her blond hair was tied loosely behind her head now and she wore a dress of a rich dark blue. She was barefoot and moved noiselessly towards them. In her hands she carried a tray with three mugs and a simple pot which she set down on the table near them.
“I have brought you some tea,” she said. “He will join you shortly, but he asked me to tell you that your friends, the ones you are looking for, are already being sought.”
Both Rangers bowed their heads to her as she poured out green tea into two of the cups and set them before them.
“Tell me your name, young woman,” Niall said to her, “so we may thank you properly.”
She laughed.
“Why do you laugh?” Niall asked.
“We are not used to such courtesy here on the docks of Inshanar.”
“Even so, your kindness to us this morning merits our thanks.”
“My name is Mirah.”
“Mirah, I am Niall son of Erinor, and this is Arden son of Tyr, and for your kindness you have our gratitude. We thank you for the tea.”
She smiled and laughed again.
“Gentlemen, you are welcome. You are guests in my house, which is first the house of my husband and his brother. I could do no less.”
Without looking, Niall could feel Arden wince from across the table. Mirah noticed his reaction, and looked at him briefly, with curiosity in her eyes, but Arden’s face was composed. He smiled back at her politely.
“Could you also tell us the name of our host?” he asked.
“He didn’t tell you, did he?” Mirah said, laughing. “He’s like that. His name is Rafenor. Now I must go speak to the cook about your breakfast before I sleep.”
She left them then and did not return, though for some time they could catch the sound of her voice from within. Arden had little more to say, so Niall sipped his tea and waited for Rafenor to return. He joined them shortly and sat down to a pipe and a cup of tea. Niall offered him his thanks, which he declined.
“We’re doing each other a favor. His story,” he said, pointing at Arden with his pipe, “is all I require.”
He sat drawing on his pipe for a minute.
“Mirah told you that we are already seeking your Rangers?” he asked, and when Niall nodded, he continued. “So far, we have learned that they’re in the rebels’ part of the city. It will take a little time to persuade the rebels to listen to our inquiries. They’re not too fond of us over there.”
“Why?” Arden asked.
“When the rebellion began, the people in Inshanar rose up as well. They hated the dragon and his men. But few had ever seen a dragon, do you see? All they knew were his servants, who were men like us, and from them they knew what to expect. Life was hard, cruel, but they could predict it. Then, about two months ago, we heard what happened to Narinen and soon after that the silver dragon came here. That was a different story altogether. It scared people. Some around here started thinking that maybe life before wasn’t so bad. When you make your living from the sea, you learn there are some storms you can’t weather, and that’s how they see the dragons. So the rebels don’t trust us any more than the troopers do.”
“Finding them may prove difficult then,” Niall said.
“No,” Rafenor said and thought about it for a moment. “Tricky would be the better word.”
“Is there anything we can do to make it simple?” Arden asked.
“Better let me handle it. They know me,” Rafenor said. “Though, now that I come to think of it, once we’ve convinced the rebels to admit that the Rangers are with them, we’ll need a way to convince the Rangers themselves that they aren’t walking into a trap.”
“We can help there, I think,” said Niall. “There are passwords, of course, but those change. One of us could go to them.”
“It may come to that,” Rafenor said, “but for now all we can do is wait. Once my brother arrives with your other friends, he’ll go see the rebels himself. That will help.”
Rafenor leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. Sitting there with his pipe in his mouth and his cup by his elbow, the storyteller seemed as much at home in his quiet garden as he had last night amid the noise and laughter of the Dark Lantern. As Arden watched him he could easily imagine him in that chair every morning, engrossed in a book and enjoying the quiet. Several hours ago Arden would never have guessed as much. The storyteller had seemed a creature entirely of the night. Suddenly Rafenor looked up at him.
“Now tell me where you got the sword,” he said to Arden.
Though Arden was normally averse to recounting the tale of Narinen, he felt no reluctance today and began at once with his arrival at the Mountain Gate. Telling Rafenor the tale of his uncle’s hopeless courage struck him as a debt he owed the Captain’s memory. Even if Arden rued outliving that day, he had no doubt that he would have died then, had it not been for the Captain, and in the months since he had met Evénn, Arden had come to see that he had perhaps survived for a reason. Because of the Captain, he had been in the square to save Mahar’s bow; he had met Jalonn who brought him and the bow to the Rangers; he had met Evénn who carried the sword and revealed the identity of the bow; and together they had slain the red dragon. Arden did not understand the reason, but reflecting on it made him see that there was more to this world than he had long wished to believe. It did not lessen his pain or loss, but he felt less alone with them. Telling Rafenor the Captain’s story was almost a pleasure.
And a surprise. To Niall who listened to Arden as he spoke with pride of fighting beside the Captain, no less than to Jalonn and the others who came in with Rafenor’s brother in the middle of the story. Master Jalonn knew Arden longer than anyone, and all he could do was raise his eyebrows when he heard him. Evénn and Agarwen exchanged a look of quiet pleasure. Even the storyteller, who rarely took his eyes off Arden during the tale, could see in the faces of Niall and the others that this was a departure for Arden. For that reason he appreciated the favor, as he called it, all the more. He waved the others to seats at the table and poured them tea from a fresh pot brought out by Torran, but he would not allow Arden to be interrupted.
There was little need. Since Arden spoke only of what happened at the Mountain Gate, his story was soon done. Niall introduced Evénn, Jalonn, and Agarwen to Rafenor, and explained to them the steps Rafenor was taking to find the other Rangers. Almost immediately breakfast arrived on steaming platters full of fresh bread, eggs, and bacon. It was so plentiful that not even the wolf and Argos left the table hungry. Safe behind the walls, the hound and the wolf lay sleeping in the sun, while one by one the companions entered the house to rest. In time Evénn withdrew from the table to sit quietly beneath an arbor by the outer wall. It was covered with at least twelve dozen white roses that gleamed in the morning light. Only Jalonn and Rafenor were left at the table, where they sat and smoked.
“You keep a good table, Rafenor,” Jalonn said, “and you treat your guests well. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“You are welcome,” he responded, “and Niall has already thanked me.”
“But I have not. Your kindness will not be forgotten by the Rangers.”
“Arden’s tale of my uncle is all the thanks I require.”
“The Captain of the Mountain Gate was your uncle, then?”
“I cannot claim to have known him, though I met him several times during my time in the City. More often I heard him spoken of, always with praise.”
The storyteller did not reply to this, but nodded slowly as if pleased, and continued puffing on his pipe. To Jalonn’s eye he seemed to be engaged in an inner debate, weighing whether he should give voice to his thoughts or keep silent. As a man who did not speak much himself, but constantly observed others, Jalonn was familiar with that expression in a man’s eyes, which told of a moment’s inward glance as the man watched the scales of decision balance in his mind. That was the look in Rafenor’s hazel eyes this morning.
At breakfast Jalonn had seen him talk much, plying Arden and the others with questions, but never pressing a point or lingering, always moving on to the next point, then telling a story or two of his own about Inshanar or Rangers he had known. He made himself the center of their attention, but he was clearly using his stories and questions to observe them. He was shrewd. Now Jalonn watched and let him be, knowing that no seemingly innocent question of his own would draw the matter of Rafenor’s inner debate from him. When the storyteller’s gaze turned outward again, he met Jalonn’s eye as if he saw reflected there what the Master had seen. One corner of his mouth went up slightly and he looked amused. Jalonn decided that he liked Rafenor.
“Do you think you will win?” he asked Jalonn.
“Yes,” Jalonn answered without hesitation.
“That simple?”
“Nothing’s that simple, but, yes, we shall win.”
“The cost will be dreadful.”
“It already is.”
“To you, I mean, and to those with you.”
Jalonn turned and looked at him closely. Rafenor gazed steadily back at him. Now no smirk was on his face, no glimmer of laughter showed in his expression. His face was grave, asking Jalonn only if he understood how dear the price of slaying the dragons would be.
“Yes, I know,” he said.
“Someday this may be a story someone else tells, but for now it is a tale of blood and sorrow that you must all live and die in.”
“So be it.”
And in Rafenor’s glance Jalonn could see that the debate within him was resolved. Rafenor leaned back in his chair and lay down his pipe.
“I must go see about your Rangers,” he said. “We should have heard something more by now.”
“There is one more thing,” Jalonn said, reaching a decision himself.
Rafenor gave him an inquiring look.
“We are waiting for a ship.”
“A ship?”
“Yes, it should have been here last week or the week before.”
“Few ships come to Inshanar. This is a fishing port, mostly.”
“It is a dragon ship, the packet that comes once a year around this time. It belongs to him,” Jalonn said and tossed his head in Evénn’s direction.
“The Spindrift? Really?” Rafenor answered, half smiling and clearly amazed.
“Really. It is how we plan to cross the sea to attack the other dragons in their own lairs.”
Rafenor grinned, then threw back his head and laughed.
“How perfect,” he said. “The dragonslayer hides in the service of the dragon. I shall inquire about this ship.”
He walked away, still chuckling. He let himself out the door and closed it behind him. Jalonn arose and went inside to sleep.
Across the garden Evénn raised his head to watch Jalonn go. He had been listening to their conversation and decided that he, too, liked Rafenor. It eased his mind that Jalonn had enlisted the storyteller’s help to discover what he could about the Spindrift. Coming into Inshanar after the mysterious Rangers was a sword that cut two ways. They were now closer to the quay where the Spindrift would dock when she came, which would make their swift departure easier, but they were also more exposed in the town, despite the high walls surrounding Rafenor’s home. It was one thing to pose as dragon’s men to slip past a weary officer in the middle of the night, but quite another to keep up that deception once their presence became known in the port. If the Spindrift came today or tomorrow, all would probably be well. But if another week passed, their position would become riskier as each day went by.
And what if one or more of the dragons came? Even now he could feel them searching for him, trying to get through the barriers of his mind and pin him down. What of Arden? Could he keep them at bay in his own mind, in his dreams? Arden’s embrace of prayer and meditation over the last four months had been impressive, as had the openness with which he usually discussed his dreams with him. Several days after the red dragon was killed, Arden had come to him, saying that he did not want the dragons’ ability to find him in his dreams to endanger the company again. He could not, he said, rely on his unwilling taste of the black dragon’s blood to overcome the dragon’s magic again. The last time had been too close. And the blood drew them on as much as it gave him the ability to resist.
No doubt because of his efforts, Arden was stronger. He was more at peace and less bitter from day to day than he had been when they had met in the autumn. The release Arden had found beside Sorrow’s grave the day after the red dragon’s fall had changed him. Evénn had seen it from a distance and he had been glad, though he had said nothing of it to Arden. But if Arden was more at peace, he was also more distant and dreamier. Casting off his burden even in part had opened doors within him which seemed to lead beyond this world. If some of these places could give him a moment’s joy, none of these places were hidden from the dragons.
Evénn sighed. Where was the Spindrift? Where were the dragons? And what did the red dragon’s dying words mean? “I shall not die entirely.” Nothing died entirely, least of all great beings of the world of spirits. The dragon knew that as well as Evénn. There seemed little point in the remark if it did not have some special meaning. But what was it? The words troubled him, as they had since the moment he heard them. Evénn sighed again and wished he had Jalonn’s confidence.

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