07 December 2014

The Fulcrum of Dreams -- Chapter 3.3

Well after two in the morning the Spindrift came to Inshanar. She approached from the southeast on the last of a long series of tacks necessary because the wind had been blowing straight from the west for nearly two weeks. At least that wind had laid the seas flat as glass and smoothed their path. She was on her way into the harbor when Evénn, concerned by the troubles of the city and the news brought by Torran about the silver dragon and his men, used several lanterns to give a signal agreed upon many years before, which told Auducar not to enter the port itself, but anchor offshore and send in a boat. The Spindrift replied as agreed. Her sails were furled and her crew anchored her smartly by stem and by stern.
A few minutes later a boat was lowered. Evénn and Agarwen watched from the shore as half a dozen sailors rowed her in, with the captain and his coxswain sitting in the stern. The wolf paced back and forth in front of them by the water’s edge. His eyes never left the longboat. To Evénn and Agarwen it seemed that he knew the Spindrift and her boat were coming to take them all away, and that this knowledge did not please him at all.
Soon the bow of the longboat slid a few feet onto the sand, and the sailors sprang out to drag her further up. The captain and his coxswain stepped ashore. While the coxswain remained with the boat and crew, Auducar strode up the beach to Evénn, Agarwen and the wolf, whose cold stare the captain returned at once.
“It took you long enough, Evénn,” he said as he grasped his hand. “I was beginning to think you would never come until I heard about the red dragon. It appears you found what you sought.”
“And more, my friend,” Evénn replied, chuckling. “And you’re late yourself.”
“Perhaps you can command the wind and the tide, Evénn, but I cannot. I have not the skill.”
“It would be perilous with dragons about anyway. Such an enchantment would only bring them all down upon us.”
“Too true, and ships burn so easily.”
“Just so,” Evénn said. “Auducar, this is Agarwen, a Ranger, and one of my comrades.”
“Pleased, Agarwen,” he said and shook her hand, astonishing her with the strength of his grip. “So, Evénn, what is going on in fair Inshanar?”
Before he could answer, the both of them suddenly looked into the city.
“What do you hear?” Agarwen asked.
“Battle. The rebels’ attack on the dragon’s men inside Inshanar has begun. None too soon either. Dawn is but a few hours away.”
Evénn rapidly told Auducar how things stood. The captain listened closely without saying a word, taking in the news being given him. He was tall, taller than Evénn by a head, broader of shoulder and deeper of chest. His long blond hair, which was tied at the back of his neck, looked silver in the moonlight and the deep tan on his face had a dusky tone. He was quite an imposing figure towering over them, and especially over Agarwen, but for all that Auducar seemed friendly and easy to her. At different points as Evénn spoke, he grunted in understanding or approval.
“So where are your horses? You should have let me bring the Spindrift into the docks if you have horses, just long enough to get them aboard and stowed below.”
“Arden and Niall are further down the docks with Rafenor right now, putting them into a barge. They’ll get them to the ship before too long. It was just too risky to bring you all the way in to the docks. Aside from the danger of the dragon, the tide itself will turn against every craft in the harbor at dawn, and there’s no telling if the rebels will stand against the enemy, even with Jalonn there.”
“Forgive me, my friend. Jalonn is the Master of Swords.”
“I suppose you’re right about the danger. Now show me where this barge is. We’ll need some proper seamen on it, not Rangers and dockworkers.”
“Arden and Niall grew up by the sea and know it well,” Agarwen said in their defense.
“Pleasure sailors, no doubt, who haven’t been to sea since they were children,” Auducar scoffed. “No, no, please take no offense, Agarwen. I often speak my mind too plainly for landsmen, but even my cook has been at sea since before their grandfathers were born.”
At that moment the noise of the battle within Inshanar became loud enough for even Agarwen to hear it. She saw the orange glow of fire rising from the streets near the northern gate.
“It’s getting worse,” Auducar said. “I’ll see to those horses.”
“Agreed,” Evénn replied.
For the rest of the night Evénn and the Rangers aided Rafenor and Torran in trying to raise men to fight with the rebel troops. They found it difficult to win more than three dozen or so young men over to their side. As the night wore on and the eastern sky slowly paled, the noise of the battle across the city grew, and more of the northern section was clearly on fire. The battle also began creeping their way. As it did so, more and more people came down to the harbor, leading their children and carrying the goods they had gathered in haste. Some put off in boats or ships of their own, others tried to steal boats or to beg passage. Soon the harbor was full of vessels heading out to sea, east and south, trying to escape.
Out beyond the mouth of the harbor, the Spindrift rode at anchor. The last of the horses was aboard, and her captain watched the people of Inshanar sailing or rowing past into the open sea in overloaded vessels. None dared ask the dragon’s ship, as they thought her, for aid. Most steered clear of her. Auducar looked upon them in pity, and in anger as well because he dared not help them, and so dispel the illusion that he was their enemy. Still he wondered as he stood holding a backstay if any of those in the boats asked themselves why their enemy did nothing to stop or harm them. It made no difference. He could do nothing.
Ashore the Rangers felt equally impotent. Men, women, and children streamed heedlessly past them, hoping the sea would grant them escape just as it had given them a livelihood. With the rising of the sun now imminent, an urgency near panic seemed to gain mastery over them, and nothing anyone said, whether Rafenor whom they knew or Evénn whom they did not, slowed them down in the least. Niall stalked back and forth in frustration. Agarwen vainly continued begging the people near her to stand and fight. Arden, his sword in his hand and his wolfhound beside him, stood in the middle of the main street which ended at the docks. He was looking up that long straight street, remembering another day and another crowd fleeing in terror. The mob flowed around him like a tide ebbing fast around a rock.
From among the crowd Arden picked out a familiar face running towards him. It was a woman, a Ranger, and she was shouting and pushing people aside as she ran. Suddenly he realized it was Dara. Immediately Arden began forcing his own way through the crowd in her direction. Argos went before him growling and baring his teeth to help clear the way. Finally they reached each other.
“Arden, where is Evénn?” she said, panting heavily.
“What is it, Dara?”
“The enemy came early, as Jalonn feared they would. They reached the gate before we did, and have been driving us back ever since. They’re a regiment of the front line, and the rebels are going to break soon. Jalonn sent me. He needs Evénn and the rest of us.”
“Come with me,” Arden said.
They began to run with the flow of the people. Arden kept calling Evénn’s name, hoping that the elf’s keen ears could pick out his voice among the rumor and cry of the crowd. As they came back to the spot from which Arden had first seen Dara, he saw Evénn and the others hurrying towards them.
“Evénn,” Dara said, “the rebels are giving way. Jalonn needs us.”
The elf nodded, glanced long over his shoulder at the Spindrift. The barge was moving away from her. Their horses were now all on board. On the small beach at the end of the street, two longboats surrounded by heavily armed seamen were waiting for them. All was in readiness. Then he looked at Arden and grinned. He unsheathed the sword of adamant.
When they saw the ghostly blue flames flickering down its blade, the crowd slowed and drew back. Briefly Arden thought that they would halt at last, that they would stand and fight. Then from up the street behind him he heard the screaming of first a few, then dozens, then hundreds. It came down the street like a wave, swelling in volume as it rose to its peak. The crowd, already terrified, panicked and ran. Until Arden turned to look, he thought the dragon had come, had stooped on the street and filled it with flame just as he had done that far away day outside Narinen. But that was not what he saw as the sun broke the horizon and flooded the street with its light. He saw a mass of people trampling each other as they tried to escape the battle which was now overtaking them. The rebels had broken.
Arden, Dara, and Argos were nearly swept away by the panicked mob, but they fought their way to the side of the street. Safe in the shelter of an open doorway, Arden and Dara could see the dragon’s men coming around the nearest corner several hundred yards away and advancing slowly towards them in good order. At first little more than that was visible, but as the gap between the swift mob and the soldiers grew wider, a much smaller group, about a dozen men in all, could be made out between the two. They, too, were moving slowly, withdrawing step by step before the oncoming forces. They were in no order, but had held together in the middle of the street. Closest to the enemy were two gray cloaked men with bloody swords in their hands.
“Jalonn and Hansarad,” Dara said, “thank god they’re still alive.”
As glad as he was to see them still alive, Arden was moved with grave concern. Not only were they greatly outnumbered by the troops he could see advancing, but with every moment more of the dragon’s men rounded the corner. As Dara had said, these were no ordinary soldiers. They moved as one. They advanced calmly and relentlessly. They had successfully concealed their numbers from the rebel scouts and anticipated the rebels’ plan to seize the gate by seizing it first themselves. Now they had defeated and broken their enemy and were driving all who remained backwards until they could pin them with their backs to the sea. Arden guessed that other enemy troops were probably approaching the docks on parallel streets to prevent any chance of escape.
He looked to Evénn, who alone could help them now as he had at Prisca, but then as now any enchantment powerful enough to halt the enemy’s assault would only betray them and draw the dragon to them. Evénn was standing where Arden had stood when he saw Dara, the others gathered around him. He held his right hand out in front of him, and, whatever the nature of the spell he cast, the crowd divided as it came near and flowed around them. Beyond him Arden could see that the two longboats from the Spindrift somehow also remained unnoticed by those running desperately up and down the docks in search of some ship or boat to carry them to safety. Was that Evénn’s doing as well?
In another minute the tide of people had run out. None now stood between Arden and the enemy except Jalonn’s small group. As he and Dara stepped out of the doorway, Jalonn glanced over his shoulder at him and nodded. Arden’s eyes met Hansarad’s as well. He and Dara started forward to join them, but were immediately overtaken by Evénn striding rapidly up the street.
“We don’t have time for this, Arden,” he said as he went past.
Behind him were Agarwen and Niall, Rafenor and Torran, and a few others who had taken heart to see the sword unsheathed. Together they went to meet the enemy. Rafenor was on Arden’s left and Dara with her blood-tipped spear to his right. Arden looked into the storyteller’s eyes and saw that he was not afraid. Then he handed Rafenor the Captain’s sword.
“This should be yours,” he said.
“I can’t accept it,” Rafenor replied, amazed and grateful.
“You have no choice. You’ll need a good sword today. And I have this,” Arden said as he unslung the bow.
Arden started running to catch up to Evénn before he closed the gap between him and the enemy. Even now he had almost reached Jalonn and Hansarad. The dragon’s soldiers were thirty yards beyond them. Evénn waved Jalonn and Hansarad aside.
“Go back,” he cried to the dragon’s men as he passed Jalonn’s band.
Scattered laughter from their ranks was their only reply. In answer Evénn swung the sword of adamant once above his head and then down in a great arc which ended with the sword pointed directly at the center of the enemy line. As he swung it, the sword kindled into bright blue flames which leaped like lightning from the blade and struck the enemy. Rank upon rank fell as the sword’s fire cut through them. But the soldiers were many and they were brave. They closed their ranks and quickened their pace.
“Go back,” the elf cried and struck them again.
Arden now joined the battle, standing close to Evénn and loosing arrows at the officers of the enemy. Behind him and to either side Agarwen, Dara, and Niall were shooting down their sergeants and standard bearers. Jalonn and Hansarad took it all in, leaning on their swords to catch their breath and rest a moment. Rafenor and his brother stood with them, waiting with their swords in their hands. The other rebels were spread across the street, also waiting, openmouthed at what they saw.
It was the renewed screaming from the docks which caught Jalonn’s attention. Weary and disgusted he looked back just as the silver dragon’s shadow almost renewed the departed night. Just above the rooftops he loomed, immense in this moment beyond all imagining, and gliding towards them at an incredible speed which made him grow more immense with each second. Hansarad saw him, too.
“Evénn,” Hansarad cried in a voice that tore his throat and could be heard even above the din.
The elf spun about at the alarm in that cry, and springing forward to protect Arden, swung his sword. Blue fire flashed up to meet the dragon. Almost too late. For the dragon alighted on the rooftops beside Jalonn and Hansarad, ignoring them in their impotence to harm him, now that he had the bearers of the sword and the bow before him. The blast of red flame from his mouth was deflected by the sword’s blue flame and continued on up the street to engulf his own troops. Again and again the dragon loosed his flames upon Evénn and Arden until they disappeared behind a curtain of blue and red fire.
Yet the dragon was driving Evénn and Arden back. Jalonn could see that the fires of the dragon were prevailing. The barrier protecting them was weakening, shrinking, failing. This dragon was clearly far stronger than the red one had been. Niall, Dara, and Agarwen were now shooting at the beast, without effect. For now, the dragon simply ignored them. Without hope Jalonn sheathed his sword and grabbed his bow, as did Hansarad also. Both knew these weapons could not harm the creature above them.
Yet in the instant that despair came to Master Jalonn and he notched a useless arrow to his bowstring, something came flying out of the wall of flame. Long, curved, and black it looked against the light behind it. Until it clattered to the cobblestones before his feet, Jalonn could not tell what it was. The bow of Mahar. He dropped his own and seized it. He ran up beneath the dragon, drawing the bow. When the dragon heard him shouting the words of the spell taught him by Evénn, his eyes darted downwards, his head began to swing around, in time for Jalonn’s arrow to strike his throat from below and vanish upward into his skull.
No sound did the dragon utter as light and hatred died from his eyes. He struggled to draw himself up to strike at Jalonn, but the fires within him went cold. He collapsed, caving in the roof of the house directly beneath him. His long neck whipped forward and his head struck the ground. His eyes were wholly dark. He did not move. Jalonn walked over and shot him a second time, and a third. He stood there, hardly satisfied, but convinced the dragon was dead. He heard Agarwen calling him.
“Master Jalonn, come quickly.”
Reluctantly he turned his back on the dragon. He saw Agarwen and the others kneeling in the street, Arden cradled in her lap, her arms around him. Niall had Evénn propped up against him a few feet away. Hansarad was examining Arden, and Dara Evénn. Jalonn rushed to join them.
“What happened?” he asked as he knelt beside Agarwen. “I see no wounds.”
“I don’t know, Master,” said Agarwen, silently weeping. “When you shot the dragon and the flames ceased, the light of Evénn’s barrier disappeared as well. We saw them lying there and went to their aid. But they are scarcely breathing. They do not move. When we call their names, they do not answer.”
“This is beyond me, Agarwen,” Jalonn said. “I do not know.”
“Stand aside there, will you?” a loud voice said in the silent seeming street. “I came as soon as I could,” it muttered.
From the corner of his eye Jalonn saw the captain of the Spindrift for the first time. It was easy enough to guess who he was. Auducar went to Evénn, then to Arden, opening their eyes and staring deep within them. His face grew troubled.
“Who commands here?” he asked, now quietly.
“I do,” Jalonn answered.
“Whatever affects them is grave. I see nothing of life in their eyes. This requires more help than I can offer here. We must get them to my ship and sail at once.”
Auducar waved his hand and a dozen of his crew rushed forward, easily hoisting Evénn and Arden to their shoulders. Jalonn rose and watched them moving rapidly towards the harbor.
“We’ll be under sail in five minutes,” Auducar said and strode off down to the boats.
“Get up now, Agarwen,” Jalonn said and pulled her to her feet. “Niall take the sword and cut that monster’s head off. Hansarad, Dara, you come with us. Who knows if they’ll survive. We’ll need your help in any event. Somehow things just got harder.”

Jalonn surveyed the street once before leaving. Aside from themselves it was nearly empty. The houses along either side of the street for two hundred yards were burning. Not a soldier of the enemy that he could see remained alive. There were no movements, no screams of agony. The bodies lay black and smoking. The west wind blew the smoke and charnel reek in Jalonn’s face. His eyes burned.

No comments:

Post a Comment