07 December 2014

The Fulcrum of Dreams -- Chapter 3.2

Four hours later Rafenor returned. He was met at the door by Argos and the wolf who looked at him curiously, then went back to lie in the shade beneath the porch. Arden, Agarwen, and Niall were all practicing silent duels in which they uttered no sound themselves nor allowed their swords to cross. The walls of the house of the storyteller were high and thick, but not so much as to keep the clash of swords from carrying into the street beyond. As Rafenor could readily see, it took the most precise control for them to fence at full speed, but stop their blades the instant before they touched. He had met and spoken to Rangers before over the years, but never had he seen their skills displayed. Amid the hot, still air of the early afternoon, their movements seemed almost dreamlike. It was in fact a sight he found quite beautiful to see.
Before them Jalonn stood examining their form and quietly making suggestions. Evénn still sat upon his bench beneath the roses, but he was looking at Rafenor now. When their eyes met, he stood and approached him. Rafenor met him halfway, yet noticed that the Rangers did not pause in their exercise or look at him. Given how eager they must be for the news he brought, he found their discipline admirable.
“What news?” Evénn asked him in a calm voice.
“I have prevailed upon the rebels to admit that the Rangers are with them, but they won’t say much else. They’re being exceptionally close about the whole thing, which is odd.”
“Yes. I am one of the few they trust down here. My brother and I have done them a favor or two. So usually they are more open with us, but all my brother could get out of them before I arrived were suspicious looks and denials that they knew about any Rangers in Inshanar. He thinks something has frightened them badly, and I agree.”
“From what you say, they seem quite anxious,” Evénn said. “Were you able to learn anything more when you spoke to them yourself?”
“Two things. First they know that five dragon’s men entered the city last night, in two parties, the first of two soldiers and a dog, the second of three soldiers with a wolf, and that they were looking for the two Rangers. They seemed to find the presence of a dog very interesting.”
“And well they might,” said Evénn slowly, weighing Rafenor’s words. “But what is the second thing you learned?”
“They are looking for you.”
“For us?” Evénn said, raising his eyebrows. “For us? No one should know we are here. We have avoided all contact with others, especially Rangers, since we left Narinen.”
“What do you make of it?”
“I don’t know what to say,” he said thoughtfully, and paused to consider what he knew. Ever since they had heard of the destruction of Narinen, they had stayed out of sight as much as they could. They journeyed only by night and kept to the woods at the foot of the Green Hills. After arriving outside Inshanar almost four weeks ago, they had hidden during the day. They had spoken to no one at all. Then last night those two Rangers had suddenly appeared, riding with reckless speed for the port, and he and the others had decided to follow them into the city. Who were they? Why were they seeking them? How did they know where to find them?
“Obviously Rangers or someone in touch with them saw us on our way here, and recognized at least one of us,” he said and then turned and called out. “Jalonn, there is news.”
Without looking at him, Jalonn raised his hand. The practice stopped. Rafenor and Evénn began walking towards the porch, and Rafenor beckoned the Rangers to join them there.
“Is there any news of my ship?” Evénn asked as they neared the porch.
“A ship was seen hull down on the horizon an hour ago. The sails are right for her to be the packet, but with the wind as it is, she likely won’t arrive before morning.”
“Then I must go have a look,” he said and turned to the others. “Rafenor has found the Rangers for us. He will tell you what he knows, while I go look for my ship. It’s possible she’s almost here.”
Evénn picked up his sword from where he had propped it against the railing of the porch, and headed for the gate. At a wave from him, the wolf left his shady spot and followed him out into the street. Left alone with the Rangers, Rafenor began his tale again. Questioned by them more thoroughly than by Evénn, his opinion of them continued to rise. In this matter they were as attentive to detail as they had been in their sword drill. Little wonder, he thought, that these men and women had survived thirty years under the red dragon’s sway when all others who tried to resist had been crushed quickly and finally; and that now, as the red dragon lay dead on the shore outside Narinen, small bands of Rangers had been able to inflict such terrible harm on the enemy despite the presence of the other three dragons.
When Rafenor was done, Arden said, to himself if no one else, “I knew we were right to follow them here.”
“Yes,” Agarwen replied, “whatever their news is, it must be important indeed for them to risk coming here so openly. What do you think, Jalonn?”
“Either they are fools or their news is worth endangering everything,” he answered as he looked at the table and stroked his chin.
“Or maybe only fools would be foolish enough to run this risk,” Niall said. “Their chances of reaching here alive by the road were slim, and they rode their horses nearly to death.”
“Clearly they thought delivering their message was worth dying for,” Rafenor put in.
“It must have to do with the dragons,” said Arden.
“Yes, that’s it,” Jalonn looked up and answered. “Only information about the dragons themselves would matter so much.”
Just then the door opened and Torran walked into the garden. He came straight up to them, glancing around as he did. Arden knew he was looking for Mirah.
“They want a meeting,” he said without delay.
“The rebels or the Rangers?” Jalonn asked, requiring more precision of the young man.
“The rebels say the Rangers do,” Torran answered, slyly amused at his reply.
“Why?” said Jalonn.
“They – the Rangers – ” he said, a grin flickering across his face, “want to be sure they’re not walking into a trap. They want to see someone they know.”
“That they wouldn’t say. They just said to make sure it was someone any Ranger would know.”
“That would be me,” Jalonn said and leaned back, studying the young man’s face.
“They also insisted that it was to be that one alone, and no one else: no dog, no wolf, no horse, and no one following. They said the Rangers would be watching the one who came, and would kill him if their requirements were not met.”
“I don’t like that at all,” Agarwen said slowly, stressing each word. “You could be walking into a trap yourself.”
“Nor do I,” Niall agreed. “She’s right, Jalonn.”
“Yes, it could be a trap,” he replied. “There could be no Rangers. It could be that the rebels think they’ll catch a soldier of the dragon. It could also be a test. If no one comes, they will know we are not who we claim to be. If we do not honor their terms, they’ll know we don’t trust them, and will be less likely to trust us even if the threat is a bluff. What do you think, Torran?”
As Rafenor’s brother considered his response under Jalonn’s steady gaze, Agarwen looked at the swordmaster in surprise. He was not known for asking the young their opinion. She saw Niall grinning. Arden was looking at the young man as well, but there was laughter in his eyes, when he briefly shifted his gaze to meet hers.
“Well,” began Torran, “as my brother has likely told you, the rebels are very frightened of something. We don’t know what it is, but their fear alone suggests that they are just being very careful and that this is no trap. I would go.”
“Very good,” Jalonn responded. “And so shall I.”
“Master Jalonn, no,” Arden said, and immediately realized his error in calling Jalonn ‘master’ before others. For out of the corner of his eye he caught an intrigued look on the storyteller’s face and saw him silently mouthing the word to himself.
“No?” Jalonn said very quietly, without even looking at Arden.
“No,” Arden repeated. “Let me go, or Niall. We are both old enough for any Ranger likely to be entrusted with such a message to know us. It is too dangerous.”
“More dangerous than slaying dragons, Arden?” Jalonn said with a brief laugh. “I think not. I shall go.”
The tone of his voice told them all that further argument was useless. He had spoken with the finality and conviction in his voice of a Master giving an order. They could not disobey. To Rafenor and his brother, who watched this exchange with interest, Jalonn said:
“Did we learn the names of the Rangers by any chance?”
“No, that they wouldn’t tell us,” Torran replied, his brother nodding in agreement.
“What about the names of the rebels we are dealing with?”
“The one we were both speaking to is called Aldas, a cousin of ours,” the young man said. “He has some say among the rebels.”
“Good. They’re expecting an answer, I gather?”
“They await my return.”
“Then tell them that the Master of Swords will meet the Rangers. Whoever they are, I think they’ll remember me. But, tell that only to your cousin, Aldas, and tell him to tell only the two Rangers. If he will not agree to that, then they will have to come to us, under the same terms.”
“I understand, Master Jalonn,” Torran said and headed for the gate.
As he went out, he passed Evénn and the wolf on the way in. Both were looking cheerful.
“What news, Evénn?” Agarwen called out to him. “You look like you’ve found your ship.”
“I believe I have,” he said with a smile and a look of relief as he came up the porch steps. The others sat up.
“There is a ship in the offing,” he continued. “Three masts, square-rigged. She looks much like the Spindrift, but with barely more than her sails above the horizon, it is impossible to be sure.”
“But you think it’s her?” Agarwen asked.
“Yes, I do,” Evénn said. “I am confident she is the Spindrift at last.”
“So when will she arrive?”
“That depends entirely on the wind and tide, Agarwen, and both are against her now. Late tonight, I would say, or early tomorrow morning.”
“Good to know,” Jalonn said to him. “For my part, I’ll be meeting with our mysterious Rangers later. Tonight, I imagine. So perhaps we can be on our way tomorrow.”
“Just so,” replied Evénn. “The longer we are here, the more danger we are in.”
“That much is certain, whatever news they bring.”
After it was fully dark that night Jalonn made ready to leave Rafenor’s house. For a minute he stood there, his own gray Ranger’s cloak on his shoulders, and in his hands he held out the dragon’s cloak he had been wearing. He pondered which would serve him better that night. Deciding on his own, he handed the other cloak to Arden who, along with all the rest, was awaiting Jalonn’s departure. He and Niall were still displeased that Jalonn was going. To their attempt to raise the question once more, a curt shake of his head was the only answer. They pursued it no further. They knew that Master Raynall himself had difficulty swaying Jalonn once his mind was made up.
Rafenor and his brother stood by and waited on the grass near the porch. On the steps sat Agarwen with Evénn, who was trying to explain the mysteries of sailing to one who had never seen the ocean until just over four months ago. Behind them on the top step Mirah leaned against a post, her arms folded in front of her, and looked at her husband as he waited to escort Master Jalonn across the city to meet the Rangers.
“Before we go, young man, let me thank you, your brother, and all your household for your assistance,” Jalonn said, nodding his head in turn to Torran, Rafenor, and Mirah.
“You are welcome. We should go,” Torran said and with a last glance at Mirah, he started for the gate. Jalonn followed.
“He thanked us because he might not return,” Rafenor said after they were gone.
“He is grateful for your help,” Agarwen said from her seat on the steps.
“He is the Master of Swords?”
“He is.”
“If you do not succeed, he will be the last one.”
Agarwen laughed.
“There will always be a Master of Swords.”
Outside the gate Torran and Jalonn turned left to the end of the street, then right. For a few minutes they continued straight on, but the young man soon led them into a narrow lane between buildings which took them in a labyrinth of small streets and allies so winding that anyone not raised there, not even a Ranger, would have quickly found himself utterly lost. As Jalonn moved along through this maze behind Torran, he was impressed by how sure he was of his way. There was never a moment’s doubt or hesitation. Torran knew these streets like he knew his own name, and the route to their destination never seemed in question for him. When Jalonn saw the speed and caution of his movements, the silence he kept as they went, never saying an unneeded word or making and unnecessary gesture, often stopping to wait and listen, Jalonn recalled several Rangers he had known, who could have learned from this young man’s quiet proficiency. Once at a larger intersection of seven streets, they paused in the shadows for nearly fifteen minutes until Torran felt it was safe to move on.
After more than an hour of these twists and turns, they emerged onto a broad, straight street, which ran east and west.
“We are now in the part of Inshanar controlled by the rebels,” Torran told him in a low voice. “What you and I just passed through we call The Warrens. Even before the dragon fell it was the most dangerous part of the city, far more so than the docks. Most of the dragon’s men won’t go in there unless they have to, but there are several who have the nerve for it. They grew up in there and we must avoid them if we can. Here it is safe to speak again.”
“You seem to know The Warrens well,” Jalonn said.
“Well enough to find my way.”
“Do you see the man watching us from the roof behind me?”
“Second building back on your left,” Torran answered.
“Precisely,” Jalonn said, pleased that he had noticed, “but which way now?”
Without a word Torran led him away westward down the street, past stores and houses much like those which Arden and Niall had seen the night before. Now and again they heard a door shut, or a raised voice through a window, but they saw no one except the occasional watcher on a rooftop. Jalonn wondered how many they had missed, the more clever ones who kept their profiles low against the chimneys, gables, and roof lines, or who peered out from within dark second story windows. But they did not speak of it and continued on their way. For a meeting like this, with an anxious group of rebels, it was best to allow themselves to be seen coming. When they had traveled a bit further, rounding several more corners, Torran spoke again.
“Why does that one Ranger, the tall one, keep looking at my Mirah?”
The question took Jalonn off guard and at first he did not answer.
“Arden? When he was a lad, several summers younger than you are now, he loved a girl. The day Narinen fell he left her in a place he thought was safe. He was wrong. No place was safe that day. He has regretted that choice bitterly every day since. From his description of her, I would guess that your wife looks very much like her. You needn’t worry, however.”
As Jalonn was speaking, Torran stopped dead and stared at him.
“Thirty years? He has borne that regret for thirty years? That’s almost as foolish as his leaving her.”
“We are all fools in some ways, Torran,” Jalonn answered, smiling to himself at the certainty and intolerance so typical of a young man. “Arden loved her deeply. What if it were your Mirah?”
For a moment Torran considered this question.
“I would never leave Mirah.”
“Then perhaps your folly lies elsewhere.”
“No doubt it does,” Torran laughed quietly. “Come, we’re almost to the meeting place.”
After one final corner they entered into a wider street, unpaved, but lined with more of those same whitewashed houses with dark wood framing so common in Inshanar. At its far end two men were leaning against a wagon and smoking. When either of them drew on their pipes, Jalonn could glimpse their faces in the red glow, but they were too far away for him to make out their features. He saw alleys on both sides of them. More wagons stood near their exits. From one of the alleys Jalonn heard movement and knew that soon after he and Torran passed the rebels concealed there would push the wagons into the street, cutting off their retreat.
The two men ambled slowly into the middle of the street to meet them. One muttered something to the other which Jalonn could not catch. When he and Torran were almost there, they heard the wagons begin rumbling out of the alleys behind them. Neither of them looked back. Beside him Torran seemed very much at ease.
“You’ve done this before, lad,” Jalonn said.
“A time or two,” Torran replied.
And then they were there, face to face with the two men. Each side waited to see who would speak first.
“We’re here,” Torran said calmly to them. “Where’s Aldas? And where are the Rangers?”
“All in good time, Torran,” the shorter of the two answered, then looked directly at Jalonn. “Who are you?”
“My name is Jalonn,” the swordmaster said, pulling back his hood to reveal his face in the moonlight.
“Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
“You asked who I was. I told you.”
“There’s no need to be surly,” Torran said to the man, annoyed. “Rafenor and I had an agreement with Aldas to meet here at this hour. Where is he?”
“All is well, lad,” the man replied. “This fellow and I were just about to discuss that. Isn’t that right?”
The man, who had been looking at Torran again, returned to Jalonn.
“So, you’re a Ranger.”
“Yes,” he answered.
“Then prove it.”
“As you please.”
With that the man jumped forward, aiming a blow at Jalonn’s head, but the swordmaster stepped into him, striking him hard in the ribs with the pommel of his half drawn sword. As the man doubled over, Jalonn tripped him and threw him to the ground with his right hand, while re-sheathing his sword with his left. The second man also came at him in a rush, which Jalonn sidestepped, seizing the front of the man’s shirt up near his throat. He pivoted, using his attacker’s momentum against him to jerk his head forward and down. His balance lost, the man could only follow the circle Jalonn dragged him stumbling through, before he planted his foot and pulled him up so short that his feet came out from under him and he landed hard on his back. Out of the shadowy doorways and alleys around them others came two or three at a time, until nine men lay on the street, some unconscious, others gasping in pain for their breath, but all alive.
Torran had stood by motionless. He knew this was not his battle and none of the rebels had attacked him. They had challenged Jalonn to prove himself and he had accepted the challenge. In the Dark Lantern and elsewhere, he had witnessed many contests, some quite unequal, but never one unequal in quite this way. He smiled to think what a story his brother could have spun from this brief scene.
“You didn’t draw your sword,” he said when it was over.
“Their hands were empty,” Jalonn responded.
Further down the street on their right a door opened and three figures filed out, two of them cloaked and hooded like Rangers, the third short and rather plump. As they came closer, the tallest of the Rangers stepped quickly forward, threw back his hood, and extended his arms to grasp Jalonn by the shoulders.
“Jalonn,” he said.
“Hansarad,” Jalonn said in answer, surprised and pleased, and Torran could hear the joy in his voice at meeting the younger man. The two Rangers embraced. Even in the moonlight Torran could see the ugly scar which ran along Hansarad’s cheekbone and up into the hair above his right ear.
“Jalonn, forgive us the challenge, but we had to be sure it was really you. I knew the enchantments of the dragon could make a man look like you; but they could not make one fight like you.”
“A wise precaution,” Jalonn said, “but who’s this with you?”
“It’s Dara, one of my – she’s a captain now.”
“Captain Dara, I remember you well.”
“And I you, Master Jalonn,” she replied, but in her voice Jalonn could hear an edge he had not heard there before.
“Now what’s brought you two here at such risk, Hansarad? What made you take the road, of all things?”
“We were desperate, Jalonn. The silver dragon knows you are all here. How, I don’t know. But he is coming here and has sent troops ahead. They will probably be here in the morning. The dragon of course could show up at any time.”
“How do you know this? And what of the other dragons?”
“After Narinen, they flew off to the west and have not returned. How we came by this knowledge is a long story we can tell later. Right now, tonight, you must all leave.”
“We cannot leave yet, but we hope to tomorrow.”
“Jalonn, you cannot stay here,” he protested.
Jalonn then pulled Hansarad and Dara aside and in a few brief whispers explained to them why they were in Inshanar and why they must stay until at least tomorrow. Torran and Aldas, who had moved forward to stand next to his cousin, looked on. They could not hear Jalonn’s words, but they saw Hansarad and Dara nodding as if they suddenly understood everything.
“Then we must buy you the time you need to get aboard and away,” Hansarad said. “When is the first tide you can sail on?”
“Tomorrow afternoon, I am told,” answered Jalonn. “The ship is still well out in the offing, and she will be fighting wind and tide much of the night just to get near the harbor.”
“But he’s sure it’s his ship?” Dara asked.
“Yes, he went down to the sea several times this afternoon, and when he returned at sunset he said he had no doubt.”
“Then for all our sakes let us hope the eyes of the elves are as keen as the songs make them,” Hansarad said.
“Indeed,” Jalonn said before turning to address Aldas. “But what of the rebels? What do you know of the troops coming this way? What plan do you have?”
“We have sent out scouts tonight, sir,” Aldas replied diffidently, intimidated at speaking to the Master of Swords and overwhelmed by how easily he had bested his men. “Only one has returned so far. She tells us that about three hundred of the silver dragon’s troops are now camped five miles north of the city. They will be here in the morning.”
“But do you have a plan, Aldas? How many men do you have?”
“We do, sir,” he stuttered. “We only have about three hundred men ourselves – Inshanar is not as well peopled as it once was – and we plan to attack the troops within the city first, and then hold the north gate against the troops who will be here tomorrow. This was my idea,” he added nervously.
“And it is a good idea, Aldas,” Jalonn said confidently and clapped Aldas on the shoulder, making him jump, “but midnight is drawing near and you may expect the dragon’s troops at the gate by dawn at the very latest. Now is the time to set your plan in motion. Hansarad, Dara, and I will help you as we can.”
“Thank you, sir, but what if the dragon comes?”
“If the dragon comes, Aldas, the dragon comes. We cannot control that.”
“But will you and the dragonslayer kill him?”
“If ever we can, Aldas. Now, we must begin. Now, do you hear? Get your men ready. I shall need to see your other leaders as well.”
“Of course,” Aldas said and started back towards the building from which he and the Rangers had come.
“Torran,” Jalonn said, looking around, “you must go back to your house by the shortest route and tell them what has happened here. Tell Rafenor that he must try to muster more men if he can.”
“I will, Jalonn,” Torran said and ran off. The rebels pulled back one of the wagons to let him through.

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