20 November 2014

A Very Long Road, into Darkness: Sam and Story (III)

From Frodo's mind the bright morning -- treacherously bright, he thought -- had not banished the fear of pursuit; and he pondered the words of Gildor.  The merry voice of Pippin came to him.  He was running on the green turf and singing. 
'No! I could not!' he said to himself.  'It is one thing to take my young friends walking over the Shire with me, until we are hungry and weary, and food and bed are sweet.  To take them into exile, where hunger and weariness may have no cure, is quite another, even if they are willing to come.  The inheritance is mine alone.  I don't even think I ought to take Sam.'  He looked at Sam Gamgee, and discovered that Sam was watching him.
'Well, Sam!' [Frodo] said, 'What about it?  I am leaving the Shire as soon as ever I can -- in fact I have made up my mind now not to wait a day at Crickhollow, if it can be helped.'
'Very good, sir!' 
'You still mean to come with me? 
'I do.' 
'It is going to be very dangerous, Sam.  It is already dangerous.  Most likely neither of us will come back.' 
'If you don't come back, sir, then I shan't, that's certain,' said Sam. 'Don't you leave him, they said to me.  Leave him! I said.  I never mean to.  I am going with him, if he climbs to the Moon; and if any of those Black Riders try to stop him, they'll have Sam Gamgee to reckon with, I said. They laughed.' 
'Who are they, and what are you talking about?' 
'The Elves, sir.  We had some talk last night; and they seemed to know you were going away, so I didn't see the use of denying it.  Wonderful folk, Elves, sir!  Wonderful!' 
'They are,' said Frodo.  'Do you like them still, now you have had a closer view?' 
'They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak,' answered Sam slowly. 'It don't seem to matter what I think about them.  They are quite different from what I expected -- so old and so young, and so gay and sad, as it were.' 
Frodo looked at Sam rather startled, half expecting to see some outward sign of the odd change that seemed to have come over him.  It did not sound like the voice of the old Sam Gamgee that he thought he knew.  But it looked like the old Sam Gamgee sitting there, except that his face was unusually thoughtful. 
Do you feel any need to leave the Shire now -- now that your wish to see them has come true already?' he asked. 
'Yes, sir.  I don't know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way.  I know that we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can't turn back.  It isn't to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains that I want -- I don't rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire.  I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.'
(FR 1.iv.86-87)

Only a day before this conversation the hobbits had stood gazing down the road at the woods in which they now find themselves and Sam had asked if Elves dwelt here.  Since for Sam the Elves are virtually synonymous with Story, his wide-eyed question, posed as he looks 'across lands he had never seen to a new horizon' (FR 1.iii.73), is at least as much about entering the world of Story as it is about coming to the dwellings of flesh and blood Elves.  Yesterday's Sam was still very much the lad with his head full of Mr. Bilbo's stories of Elves and Dragons when he should have been thinking about cabbages and potatoes (FR 1.i.24; ii.44-45), still the comic gardener who could not help eavesdropping on his master's conversation with Gandalf about the Ring (FR i.ii.63), still the childlike adult who shouted for joy and then burst into tears when told he was going to see the Elves (FR 1.ii.64). Consider finally his response to the very sound of the Elves singing to Elbereth, before they have even come into his sight:
'Elves!' exclaimed Sam in a hoarse whisper.  'Elves, sir!' He would have burst out of the trees and dashed towards the voices, if they had not pulled him back. 
(FR 1.iii.78-79)
And when he first meets them (but has not had the chance to speak to them), '[he] walk[s] along at Frodo's side, as if in a dream, with an expression on his face half of fear and half of astonished joy' (FR 1.iii.81),

How very much he has changed overnight.  This is not 'the old Sam Gamgee that [Frodo] thought he knew.'  The lessons of the day before have gone home to him. Frodo's indirect answer to his question yesterday had suggested that the World of Story begins the moment you step out your door.  And the menace of the Black Riders, which emerges later that same day, confirms this.  For within hours of entering those woods, the hobbits encounter their first Black Rider, whom Sam quickly identifies as the stranger who had questioned the Gaffer, quite literally right outside his door (FR 1.iii.74-76). Frodo himself had actually overheard some of that conversation, but regarded the inquiries of the unseen stranger as yet another example of the vulgar prying of others into his affairs (FR 1.iii.69). Nor had Sam, eager to be on his way and a bit dismissive of his old father, given it much thought.

Yet what Frodo thought a mere nuisance two evenings ago now seems to have been the beginning of their Story, just as Bilbo's lesson about the dangers of stepping into the Road might have suggested.  The literal outlandishness of this Rider  --  one of the rarely seen, often troublesome, Big People, heavily cloaked and hooded, 'sniffing to catch an elusive scent,' talks funny -- is something Frodo finds 'very queer and indeed disturbing' (FR 1.iii.75).1  In fear he considers using the Ring, and reminds himself that he is 'still in the Shire' (75), as if that meant he could use it safely. Once the Rider is gone he remarks to Pippin and Sam that he has 'never seen or felt anything like it in the Shire before' (75).

But it takes more than one fright to shake even these hobbits wholly out of their insular complacency.  After discussion of the Black Rider they continue on their way, taking some precautions as well as the necessary comfort of a meal (FR 1.iii.75-77).2  Their spirits rise again with the stars and they begin to sing a song about Adventure, which fits well with Frodo's The Road Goes Ever On of the day before. However, the song's there-and-back-again view of Adventure  --  Then world behind and home ahead / We'll wander back to home and bed -- is immediately set at naught by the return of the Black Rider (77-78).  And though the timely arrival of the Elves causes the Black Rider to withdraw, the seriousness with which they view his presence only serves to emphasize the threat he poses, a threat made more frightening by the mystery surrounding him, which the Elves refuse to dispel (78-83). Even so Frodo still balks at the way his Story, his Adventure, has started before he was quite ready for it:
'I cannot imagine what information could be more terrifying than your hints and warnings,' exclaimed Frodo.  'I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect to meet it in our own Shire.  Can't a hobbit walk from the Water to the River in peace?' 
'But it is not your own Shire,' said Gildor.  'Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more.  The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.' 
'I know -- and yet it has always seemed so safe and familiar. What can I do now?  My plan was to leave the Shire secretly, and to make my way to Rivendell; but now my footsteps are dogged, before ever I get to Buckland.'
(FR 1.iii.83)
Gildor's point is well made. The perspective of Frodo and the other hobbits needs to shift.  The world is not what they supposed.  Nor is 'our own Shire.'  And the Tale has already begun.  Which brings us back to the point at which we started, the morning after the hobbits' near miss with the Black Rider and meeting with the Elves.  As in the earlier passage about the road ahead, the reactions of the three hobbits to the events of the previous day are illustrative.

Frodo awakens already prepared to waste no time getting to Buckland (after breakfast of course), but on the cheerful, resilient Pippin yesterday's dangers have cast no shadow that the morning sun cannot dispel (FR 1.iv.86).  Though he asks Frodo if he learned anything about the Black Riders from Gildor, he seems disappointed only that Frodo did not ask about the sniffing.  A moment later he is larking about, 'running on the green turf and singing' (86).  Pippin's mirth makes as deep an impression on Frodo here as Sam's question about the Elves had done yesterday.  It makes him think seriously about the possible consequences of his errand for those who accompany him.  For after his long conversations with Gandalf he knows far better than Pippin what is at stake; and Gildor's last words to Frodo about the Riders made clear that they were a deadly peril, not a thing to be spoken of openly, but to be shunned, feared, and fled (FR 1.iii.84).  Thus no bright morning can allay his fears. Frodo stops looking back here.

And he turns from Pippin to Sam, intending to leave them both behind, in 'our own Shire.'  In contrast to the ebullient Pippin, Sam is sober and thoughtful. (Bear in mind that at all points during Sam and Frodo's conversation Pippin is running about in the background singing.3) Without fuss or hesitation, Sam declares himself ready to go along.  This is not the same Sam who shouted 'Hooray!' and wept at the prospect of going to see the Elves (FR 1.ii.64), nor even yesterday's Sam who wondered if Elves lived in these woods.  To that Sam the Elves were figures of Song and Story, kings like Gil-galad and Thranduil, or lore masters like Elrond.4  To this Sam they are different, not at all diminished by the acquaintance, but made more than just heroic characters.

And it is precisely because Sam has learned to see the Elves in a more complete, more 'human' way that his perception of himself and of the Road before them has changed.  The text presents this change in two different ways.  First, we get his reaction as told to Frodo (thus 'sir') at some later time, and only afterwards his immediate response.  First things first.  Let us once again attend to the portrayal of the three hobbits.
'This is poor fare,' [the Elves] said to the hobbits; 'for we are lodging in the greenwood far from our halls.  If ever you are our guests at home, we will treat you better.' 
'It seems to me good enough for a birthday party,' said Frodo. 
Pippin afterwards recalled little of either food or drink, for his mind was filled with the light upon the elf-faces, and the sound of voices so various and so beautiful that he felt in a waking dream. But he remembered that there was bread, surpassing the savour of a fair white loaf to one who is starving, and fruits sweet as wildberries and richer than the tended fruits of gardens; he drained a cup that was filled with a fragrant draught, cool as a clear fountain, golden as a summer afternoon. 
Sam could never describe in words, nor picture clearly to himself, what he felt or thought that night, though it remained in his memory as one of the chief events of his life.  The nearest he ever got was to say: 'Well, sir, if I could grow apples like that, I would call myself a gardener.  But it was the singing that went to my heart, if you know what I mean.'   
Frodo sat, eating, drinking, and talking with delight; but his mind was chiefly on the words spoken.  He knew a little of the elf-speech and listened eagerly.  Now and again he spoke to those that served him and thanked them in their own tongue.  They smiled at him and said laughing: 'Here is a jewel among hobbits.'
(FR 1.iii.82)
Of the three, Frodo's response is the most subdued, in keeping with his greater age, knowledge, and burden, as well as with the likelihood that he has met Elves before.5 He is happy and relieved, but not overwhelmed like Sam and Pippin, and his calmness bookends and highlights their more profound experiences.  Pippin's is a beatific vision, a dream trip to Faerie, complete with food and drink that he must describe by extravagant, lyric comparisons because he can only dimly remember the food itself.  Sam's experience is, like Pippin's, beyond direct description.  He must resort to a metaphor about gardening, and a simple statement of what affected him most.  But while Pippin's comparisons exalt the Elves and make them seem otherworldly, Sam's bring them down to earth.  Their songs, unsurprisingly, go to his heart.  The Elves themselves, however, remain simultaneously beyond him and yet still a part of this world.

That is what he means the next morning when he says that the Elves are 'a bit above [his] likes and dislikes' (FR 1.iii. 87).  Old and young, gay and sad -- Sam understands each of these things.  They are part of his everyday life, of every hobbit's everyday life, but individually, not blended together simultaneously as they are in the Elves.  That's why he qualifies the words 'so old and so young, and so gay and sad, as it were' (FR 1.iii.87, emphasis mine).  As he also says, they were not at all what he expected.

And it is this denial of his expectations (whatever they were) that has pushed him to see the world differently, to see the larger picture in which the tales told by the Elves' songs represent only details, moments isolated in a continuum of long years. And that, together with their telling him not to leave Frodo, allows him to begin to see himself, Frodo, and Pippin as having become part of a story themselves. People do not speak as Sam does in the last paragraph quoted at the top of this page unless they see themselves as part of a larger narrative.6  The words bear repeating:
... I don't know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way.  I know that we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can't turn back.  It isn't to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains that I want -- I don't rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire.  I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.'
(FR 1.iv.87)
And Sam's submission to what he must do is absolute, humble, and emphatic: 'Very good, sir!'  Last night he had to be restrained from running through the woods in the darkness towards the sound of the voices of the Elves.  This morning he sits calmly and thoughtfully declares that he will not turn back or be deterred.  He has put aside childish things.  Precisely as one must before setting out on a very long road, into darkness.

__________________________

Compare the words of Strider to the hobbits at Bree: 'Drink, fire, and chance-meeting are pleasant enough, but, well -- this isn't the Shire. There are queer folk about' (FR 1.ix.157). 'Queer' seems a favorite word among hobbits.  Compare also Merry's reaction as he glimpses the Black Rider through the fog from the ferry: 'What in the Shire is that?' (FR 1.v.99)

It bears noticing that Frodo already seems to steering them away from the easier route to Buckland when he chooses to take the right fork in the road, a lane leading to Woodhall rather than towards Stock. " 'That is the way for us,' said Frodo." (FR 1.iii.76)

3 It's hardly fair to Pippin, I know, but somehow I just can't help thinking of the opening of The Sound of Music.

4 It is of course impossible to know just what 'stories of the old days' Bilbo had told Sam (FR 1.i.24). From Bilbo's own story he would have learned about Thranduil and Elrond, and Bilbo also taught him about the War of the Last Alliance (FR 1.xi.185-86). The mention of Gondolin in Bilbo's story would have raised questions in a curious mind like Sam's, and that could have easily led on to Ëarendil, whom we know was of interest to Bilbo later on. But this is speculation.

5 Frodo certainly doesn't act like Elves are new to him. Cf. FR 1.ii.42-43: 'Merry and Pippin suspected that he visited the Elves at times, as Bilbo had done' and Gildor's remark at 1.iii.80: 'We have often seen you before with Bilbo, though you may not have seen us.'

6 By the time they have reached Rivendell Sam has already come to see them as part of a story: FR 2.iii.273-74.

03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 15.2

Just as they reached the woods around the house of Sorrow, they heard the horn calls rising at last from the City. Others from further south and east answered, then others echoed still more faintly until they were so far away that only the ears of Evénn could hear them. By that time they had crossed the grounds and entered the cellar. Jalonn lit the lamps near the door and faced Niall.
“Tell us what happened,” he said.
As briefly as he could, Niall explained how he had entered the City and gone home, how he had seen the dragon depart after sunset and not return, and how he had found the postern door guarded by true soldiers. His report contained all the necessary information, but Niall delivered it in a manner so fierce and utterly unlike him that it was at once clear he was holding something back. The answer was not far to seek. Arden knew at once that it lay in Niall’s returning to his home. Something happened to him there or else he found something there he had not mentioned. It pained Arden to think what it might be.
Master Jalonn took this in as well, weighing Niall’s words and silences against his savage mood. For a few moments he pondered it all, then said:
“Returning to your childhood home alone was a mistake.”
“How so?” Niall asked, almost surly at being questioned.
“It seems to have affected your judgment.”
Before Niall could respond, Evénn spoke up.
“If it was a mistake, Jalonn, it was a natural one, and not to be faulted now. Who would not wish to see his home after so long? And, had he gone elsewhere, we might not know about the dragon’s departure. What we shall do now, is the more important question.”
“Yes, what?” said Arden vehemently, his sense of Niall’s pain sharpening his own.
“Since we have made it back here undetected,” Master Jalonn said, “we should remain as long as we can safely do so. There are enough provisions for quite a while yet. In time the dragon will return, but, if we leave, we shall find it much more perilous to return. We need to vanish again for a time, and here is the place to do so. By dawn many will be hunting for us.”
“If I were one of the dragon’s men,” Agarwen said, “there would only be one question on my mind tonight. Did the killers of the guards come to the postern to get out or to let others in? After what happened at Prisca, Evénn, I would guess that it was to let you and your companions in. So I would hunt for you within the walls.”
“I doubt the dragon would have told them about me,” Evénn said.
“But he wouldn’t have to, don’t you see?” she replied. “Your name and your deeds are known to everyone, Evénn. I haven’t travelled as far as Arden or Niall or Master Jalonn, but I have seen children playing in the streets of the most remote towns, pretending to be you and your old comrades. Arden has seen it.  We've all seen it. Even the dragon cannot erase these memories. They are too much a part of us. And I can assure you that the men who removed the bodies from the streets of Prisca thought of you when they saw what happened there. And men talk, Evénn. Men talk. The dragon’s men know you are coming.”
“True enough,” Jalonn said, “but the commander of this City is no fool. Machlor understands that things are not always what they seem. He will have his men search outside the City as well. Still, there is little on these grounds to attract their attention. The cellar is clearly unknown. Else they would have plundered it years ago. Nevertheless we must ensure that we have left no tracks nearby to lead them to us. Arden, take Agarwen with you and search our path back as far as the field beyond the woods. You can find by night what the day will not disclose to them. But you must both be out of sight before it is fully day. Go now.”
“Yes, Master Jalonn,” Agarwen said. Arden was already out the door.
The two of them went straight to the far side of the wood, and slowly began working their way back, sweeping the ground closely, Arden first, then Agarwen following. By the time they had reached the garden again, the east showed the first hint of twilight; by the time they had crossed to its far side, the sky was pink and blue and orange; when the graves were just a few feet to their right, the red sun broke the horizon. Agarwen, amazed by how long the shadows cast by the low, grass covered mounds really were, smiled at the irony. Arden was on one knee examining something just ahead. To all appearances he never once looked at the graves, but she could almost sense their pull on him.
While Arden studied the ground and the first sun of morning flooded the garden, Agarwen allowed herself to be momentarily distracted by the beauty of the young sun, and watched its brightness grow as it lifted itself from the sea. She looked away and was lowering her eyes back to the ground, so they could complete their task and get out of sight, when she noticed that Arden was now looking straight into the sun. Something about his posture alarmed her. It had all the tension of a cat about to spring. His right hand was slowly plucking an arrow from his quiver. What he was looking at, she could not tell, but his head never stirred. She crept up beside him and glanced over. His eyes were the wide and tearing eyes of someone forcing himself to stare into the sun.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Look,” he said.
“I don’t see anything,” she said as she strained her eyes against the light.
“Then look again,” he said and leaped away.
In a few strides he was past the hill and starting down the slope to the beach.
“Arden, wait,” she called out. “Wait for Evénn.”
“Not this time,” his voice came drifting back to her.
She ran after him, knowing she should get the others but unwilling to let Arden face the dragon alone. Then she saw him, skimming just above the sea at tremendous speed, nearly invisible against the sun and the golden glare on the waves. In the time it took her to reach the bottom of the slope and cross the beach, the dragon grew much larger. His speed dismayed her. But waiting at the sea’s edge stood Arden, a tall figure, calm and unafraid, his face bright with morning, like the hero Agarwen had imagined him to be when she was a child. Then the wings of the beast filled the sky, and the sea itself seemed to be rising in wrath behind him. The sun was blotted out. She stood in shadow.
“Evénn!” she cried, turning, torn, thinking all was at an end.
But before Agarwen called his name, the dragonslayer had perceived the coming of evil. Already he was racing down through the tall grass to the beach, the sword of adamant flaming in his outstretched hand. At his side coursed the wolf and the hound. Behind came Jalonn and Niall.
With rising heart she turned again and heard the thrum of Arden’s bow – but not the words. The spell remained unspoken. The dragon slapped the arrow aside with careless ease.
“No, Arden,” she called out to him. “Use – ”
Arden let fly a second arrow, again in silence. This the beast engulfed with a jet of flame, which Arden and Agarwen had to dive aside to escape. As Arden sprang back to his feet, reaching for his quiver, the dragon veered up and away. With one of his talons he slashed at Arden, whom Evénn knocked out of its path at the last instant. Both fell to the ground, but the dragon was not done with them. For the rising sea, which Agarwen thought she had glimpsed in the dragon’s wake, was no illusion of terror.
She saw the green wave break over Arden and Evénn an instant before she was overwhelmed herself. It struck like a moving wall, tumbling her through a world now dark and hard, now soft and bright. It rolled on cold and strong, breathless, endless, timeless. No way up or out. No surface. No bottom. Only the sea. Then all at once it spurned her, casting her off as quickly as it had seized her. Agarwen was face down in mere inches of swirling water, tangled in the beach grass at the foot of the hill. Dragging herself to her knees she gulped air into her heaving chest, but when she tried to get to her feet the backwash of the wave now rushing seaward again took her unawares. She staggered and fell.
But strong hands seized Agarwen and lifted her up. She raised her eyes to the grim, sad face of Niall on one side and Master Jalonn on the other. They dragged her behind some rocks, to which they clung as the water raced foaming away. In a moment it was gone. Niall opened his mouth to speak, but Jalonn cut him off.
“Down!” he shouted, pulling them both to the sand.
A blast of the dragon’s flame flashed over them, immediately followed by the dragon himself. His tail lashed above them, striking the boulder they crouched behind and splitting it in two. Bits of stone rained down on them.
As Jalonn looked up to follow the flight of the beast, Arden was hauling Evénn out of the water far down the beach where the wave had washed them. The dragon was above them almost at once, slashing with claws and tail, but the sword of adamant parried every attack, burning more brightly with each blow. Then, crying out the words of the spell in a loud, clear voice, Evénn leaped high in the air. Back and up lurched the dragon, away from the blinding light of the sword. Yet Evénn’s thrust was swifter than the dragon’s retreat, and the sword’s very tip pierced his left front leg.
The wound was slight. But such was the might of the sword and the hand wielding it that a howl of pain and rage was torn from the dragon’s throat. He landed several dozen yards from Arden and Evénn. For what seemed an eternity, he stood glaring at them. His head was held low to the ground and his wings were unfurled to their full, majestic span. A murderous red light smoldered in his slitted eyes. His tail whipped back and forth, angrily lashing the shore. With a snap of his wings he stung them with a blast of sand. Then he breathed forth a gale of flame. Again the sword shone in answer and parted the flames, which raced around Arden and Evénn and down the beach.
The dragon drew himself back once more, and looked closely at them, narrowing his eyes. Then he spoke in a voice of serene disdain.
“From long ago I remember you, elf. Hero, they called you then, the dragonslayer. Well, here I stand alive, unslain, and far more powerful than I was before. What of that? Such as you cannot destroy me. To this boy here, no doubt, your kind may seem eternal, but we know better, don’t we? To me you last but the blink of an eye. Some of you even less than that: how is your family, dragonslayer? Do they live and breathe, or are they dust and ashes this age and more?”
The dragon laughed quietly to himself.
Evénn did not answer.
“Pitiful, dragonslayer, pitiful. Where have you been these last thirty years of the sun? I thought you would hide forever. We all did. Yet it seems you still have not grasped that all is different this time. This time you will die, but for you there is no returning, not until the ending of the world.”
Evénn still did not reply, but stood calmly, the glittering sword presented before him. His eyes were closed.
“Why won’t you answer or look at me, elf? Do you fear me so? Twice now this boy has looked me in the eyes. A fool he may be, but at least he is unafraid. His hatred has untrammeled his heart. I can feel it. Powerful, beautiful, it beats upon my brow like the heat of the sun. Isn’t that so, boy?” he said and looked at Arden.
Arden’s answer was an arrow loosed straight at the dragon’s eyes. Just before it struck the beast snatched it from the air. With a grin he held it up for them to see as he turned it this way and that and examined it. The shaft kindled in his talon and vanished in flame.
“Aren’t you forgetting something, boy?” the dragon mocked, gently at first, as if they were the oldest of friends, but then his voice grew harsh. “Fool, did you not think that I could take that spell from you just as we took everything else? You are not Mahar. You have not the faith to stand alone. No, no, the bow doesn’t suit you at all. Are you the best the dragonslayer could come up with? Did you think that I wouldn’t know you’d lead them here, man of sorrow?”
With a snarl Arden loosed another arrow, which was again plucked from the air and destroyed.
“Look at me,” the dragon commanded.
The power of his voice was terrible. The beast’s will seemed to reach out and close around him like a great hand. Now Arden tried to avert his gaze, but found he could not. The outward contest did not last long. Arden grew still. The dragon only smiled.
“That’s better,” he said softly. “Now we can do much together. Stand aside. We shall speak when my revels here are done.”
Arden turned and walked away, far past the dragon, until he stood with the waves washing his feet. The beast watched him go, then looked back at Evénn.
“Now, elf, now, slayer of dragons, it is just we two.”
Evénn’s eyes opened. A light shone there and all around him. He leaped forward like an arrow from a bow. In a great arc he swung the blade and a blue flame sprang from it, curving through the air like a whip. The dragon deflected the blow with a wave of his talon, but another followed, then another. Evénn drove the dragon slowly backward, step by step, but no matter how hard he pressed him, he could not get close enough to strike him again with the sword itself.
After a dozen more blows the dragon seemed almost to stumble. Then his tail darted from behind him and its tip struck Evénn hard in the side, staggering him. For an instant the light around Evénn and the sword dimmed. Now the tide of battle shifted. The beast was driving Evénn, forcing him to give ground. And as swift as the elf was, the dragon was swifter. Talons, tail, wings, jaws, and flame all battered at Evénn’s guard, striking as quickly and in as many places as lightning on a summer’s evening. Yet Evénn withstood each attack, retreating until at last they came to a stand again. Evénn’s eyes were shut once more and his sword did not waver, but he was breathing heavily. The dragon crouched, then rose up to his full height, towering over the still, small figure before him.
“We end this,” he said.
The beast threw back his head and roared. In that cry echoed the deaths of all who had fallen and the pain of all who had endured the ages of his cruelty. The horror of it stunned the waves and laid the sea flat. The wind dropped. The morning failed.
Down at the water’s edge Arden heard that cry, heard the souls that seemed imprisoned within the dragon’s sunless heart. He tried to tear his eyes away from the mirror calm sea, but his body would not answer his will. All he could do was look upon the water and listen to the myriad voices calling out across the years from the last night of Narinen. Their chorus swelled with every death, with every life of suffering thereafter. Arden had heard that cry before, at the Mountain Gate and in the City square. His face burned where the dragon’s blood had touched it long ago. The sting of it was on his tongue. He recognized his own voice among the thousands.
“Man of Sorrow,” he murmured to himself as the roaring ceased. Then through the murk of the spell he felt a gentle hand come to rest on his shoulder from behind. A thrill ran through him. Arden knew that touch. He turned his head in time to see the beast lunge forward at Evénn.
The rush of fire from the dragon’s jaws was met by the blue of the sword. As before the flames parted and swirled around Evénn and went streaming past him down the beach, but now the fire did not cease or slacken. The brilliance of the sword was swallowed up within the flames. Even then they did not stop. The very sands of the beach glowed red, melting in the furnace of the dragon’s wrath.
“Die!” cried Niall as his sword shattered on the right side of the dragon’s head. It did him no harm, but it interrupted his attack on Evénn. The beach was rolling with fire for a hundred yards in front of the dragon. There was no sign of Evénn. The dragon tilted his head sideways away from Niall and looked down upon him from the corner of his eye. Before Niall could react, the dragon seized and held him fast in one talon.
A shadow moved to his left and an arrow appeared, flickering with a green light. It splintered harmlessly against the dragon’s eye and fell burning to the sands. The beast looked around, more amused than concerned. There was no one to be seen. Another useless arrow appeared, this time from a different quarter. A third arrow followed and a fourth. But while the dragon did not see the bowman, he did spy Agarwen, the wolf, and Argos hoping to sneak up close along his side while he was distracted. All were dashed to the ground by a twitch of his tail.
He turned again to consider Niall, who was vainly gasping for breath and trying to pry open the talon that held him. Arrows from the still undiscovered foe struck him over and again, harmlessly all, and he ignored them. He laughed to himself and hurled Niall away from him. Then with a quick glare to his left he pierced the spells that concealed his last attacker. Jalonn stood revealed. He had one arrow left.
“I see you,” the dragon said in a voice nearly charming. “Yes, yours was the spell that sealed the tavern door in Prisca. I recognize its likeness to this one. Not bad,” he paused, “but not enough.”
Jalonn shot his last arrow and began to reach for his sword. With a dismissive wave of his talon through the empty air, the arrow was deflected and Jalonn knocked sprawling. The dragon gazed about him as if disappointed. His attackers lay strewn about on the sands or were struggling to their feet far away.
Farther down the beach the line of fire had now cooled and was burning lower, but the flames nearest him, where Evénn had stood, still blazed fiercely. On either side of the line, the sand had turned to glass.
“Are you still there, dragonslayer? Tell me you still live. These ones are no sport at all. But we can’t all be elf lords, I suppose.”
“I live,” said Evénn, who strode unscathed from the wall of fire. The light of his eyes and power was less than before, but his blade was still as bright. Its light glittered off the glassy sands as he advanced to meet the dragon. The beast opened his mouth, but it was another voice that spoke. He turned in surprise.
For the voice was Arden’s. And it cried out the words of power as he swiftly drew and released a shaft from Mahar’s bow. The arrow flew true, tracing a radiant green arc through the morning air. The beast recoiled, but too late. Struck high in the neck behind the jaw, the dragon stumbled in agony, but managed to keep his feet beneath him. One claw reached up and wrenched the arrow from the wound. Dark blood spurted out and soaked the sand beneath him. Stunned and enraged, he stared at Arden, who was raising the bow a second time. But Evénn darted forward and plunged the sword of adamant deep into the base of the dragon’s throat.
His cry of pain was shattering. And in the City, and miles and miles away across the coastlands in the fortress by the Great Road, and farther off still at Prisca high in the Green Hills, its echoes struck dread into the hearts of his soldiers and servants. They recognized that cry for what it was. They grew afraid. His thousands of slaves and subjects heard it, too, and knew that the world had changed once again. From their drudgery and troubles and starveling meals they raised their eyes, to see the dragon’s men stunned and trembling, and they began to rise up.
On the strand the dragon tottered and crumpled to the earth. His blood so stained the sands that no flood tide or winter of rains could ever wash them clean. From that day men called them the Blood Sands and would not walk upon them. The beast’s eyes were fading quickly. Their power was gone. He looked up at Evénn and Arden, who both now returned his gaze. Arden held another arrow notched in the bow.
“You have only made it worse for yourselves. I will not die entirely.”
“But die you will,” said Evénn, and setting his foot on the dragon’s throat, twisted the sword in the wound and tore it out. The blade smoked. Blood ran from it to pool at his feet. The light and malice in the dragon’s eyed went out. He was dead.
Evénn walked down to the water’s edge to cleanse his blade. It hissed as he submerged it, burning with the heat of the dragon’s blood. A long time passed in which the only sounds were of the waves, now rolling in to the beach once more, and of the wind in the beach grasses. Evénn stayed on one knee in the shallows, allowing the sea to wash him and his sword, while Arden stood over the carcass of the monster. Slowly the others gathered. Niall and Argos were limping. The wolf joined Evénn at the water. Arden knelt down beside Argos and wrapped his arm around him. He stroked his chest and put his head alongside that of the hound, who craned his head around to lick his cheek. They looked in silence at the dragon.
Evénn returned, putting up his sword and dousing its light. Weariness hung from him. He looked at Arden with a mixture of displeasure, relief, and sympathy. For Arden had not waited, and that had nearly been their undoing. Arden met his eyes briefly, then turned back to the dragon. He did not look pleased. Neither did Jalonn.
“Arden, you nearly killed us all,” Jalonn said. His voice was cold, and angrier than Arden had heard it since their early days together. “Why did you not wait? We fought this battle on his terms because of your hatred.”
“That wasn’t it, Jalonn,” Arden answered him softly.
“What was it then?”
“He already knew we were here. Didn’t you hear him? And he was coming straight for us – ask Agarwen. She was there. She saw him, too. The time had simply come.”
Jalonn looked quickly, dubiously, at Agarwen, who nodded to confirm what Arden had said, but the swordmaster was still hardly pleased.
“Don’t be too hard on him, Jalonn,” Evénn broke in before he could speak again. “After Prisca the dragon was bound to find us sooner or later, and it is difficult to fight dragons on any terms but theirs. So much power confounds all planning.”
“Even so,” Niall said, “how did he know precisely where to find us?”
“I think it was me,” Arden said.
“Tell us why, Arden,” Evénn asked as if he already knew the answer.
“I have the black dragon’s blood on me,” he said. “I tasted it the night Narinen fell. That’s why this dragon could touch my mind in Prisca once you drew his attention there, Evénn, and why he appeared so many times near Baran’s camp. He could sense the blood on me, and this time he found me. Isn’t that right, Evénn?”
“I believe so,” he said.
“That’s a troubling thought,” Niall said, “with our errand hardly begun.”
Jalonn looked sidelong at Evénn.
“How long before they come?” he asked.
“If the silver dragon is in Elashandra, we have perhaps a week.” Evénn said, never taking his eyes off Arden. “For the others it will take longer.”
“We leave tomorrow night,” Jalonn said.
“What I need to understand, Arden,” Evénn said, “is how you escaped his spell. I thought you were lost. The dragon thought so, too, or he would never have turned his back on you, not with Mahar’s bow in your hand.”
“Evénn,” Arden began, then hesitated as if he did not know what to say, “when he commanded me to look at him, it was like a great hand seized me and hurled me down a slope so steep and uncertain that no matter how I struggled I could never make my way back up it again. I was drowning in his power. When he told me to stand aside, my body obeyed. Inside I was screaming, fighting back, but nothing ever seemed so hopeless.”
“And then?”
“But when he roared, I heard his cry as I had never heard it before. Perhaps it was because of the blood or the spell, perhaps because you had wounded him, or because he was so intent on you that he forgot me. I don’t know. This time all I could think of was those who lived and died with that cry in their ears. All I’d lost came back to me. I could almost touch them. Then – then I remembered the words and knew I could fight him.”
Evénn waited for more.
“That’s all there is,” Arden said with a shrug.
“Very well,” Evénn replied, and to Agarwen’s eyes he appeared no more satisfied with Arden’s explanation than Jalonn had been before.
“What now?” she asked.
“For now,” Evénn answered, “we keep our eyes open. Soldiers may come. They may not. The fall of their Master will devastate and confuse them. Many will probably take flight. I have a feeling, though, that those who do not flee will have their hands full.”
“And soon the others will come,” Jalonn said, “and the war of retribution will begin. Bloody days await.”
“But we have succeeded today,” Agarwen said. “That is something.”
“It is quite a lot,” Jalonn said thoughtfully, “but we must conceal ourselves and see what else the day brings.”
“Evénn,” said Arden as they began to leave the beach, “what do you think the dragon’s last words meant?”
“What did he say?” Agarwen asked, looking at Arden who walked beside her.
“That we had only made it worse for ourselves by killing him,” Evénn replied, “that he would not die entirely. But I don’t know what he meant.”
“Doubtless we will learn in time,” Jalonn said.
“Just so,” Evénn answered. “That’s what frightens me most.”
Throughout the day, as always, they kept watch. After about an hour, Jalonn saw a strong detachment of mounted troopers approaching along the shore from the north. A hundred yards from the carcass they halted. Two rode forward. Their horses became harder and harder to control the closer they came. At last the horses grew so wild the riders had to turn back. Heading north towards the City at a dead run, they passed the other horsemen, and waved for them to follow. They did so at once, eager to be gone. Jalonn watched them out of sight, and, though he found much to trouble him in the events of the day, he smiled a smile that no one living had ever seen.
“Now let the tables turn,” he said.
That afternoon, on the far side of the garden, among the broken and scarred trees that refused to die, Niall found Agarwen watching the City. All day long scattered parties of horsemen had been riding back and forth over the plain, but there seemed little purpose to their movements. From what she could tell at this distance the same was also true along the walls. Steel glittered here and there, always in motion. Several hours ago smoke had started rising from inside the City. Now the fires were spreading. Flames could be seen, and the taste of smoke was in her mouth.
“She’s burning again, just like before,” Niall said as he sat down beside her.
“No, these flames are different,” Agarwen stated with some conviction.
“I hope so,” Niall replied, giving her a weak smile.
Agarwen got up.
“Get some sleep,” he said.
“I will,” she said and left him. His eyes were fixed on the City.
Agarwen walked back through the trees. For the first time she realized that these were the trees Arden had ridden through that terrible morning. Ahead of her across the garden lay the three graves. She half expected Arden to be there, almost wanted him to be, but he was not. The closer she came to them, the harder it became to look away. Agarwen wondered which grave was hers. There was so much and so little in a grave, she thought. At the last moment she looked away, trying to ignore a past that was not her own.
But the thought of those inescapable days and what they meant even now did not let her go so easily. The past followed her around the hill and down the slope to the wooded lane. She stopped outside the cellar door. Arden would be within, asleep perhaps. Agarwen decided to go look at the sea for a while. Between the trees and the rocks there was the fading hint of a path. It led off south, cutting diagonally across the easy slope, away from the melted sands where the dragon lay dead. At the bottom, where the red clay of the hill met the sand of the shore, a wide swath of beach grass grew, tall and trembling in the westerly breeze. Here she stopped and knelt down. Small waves curled and broke. Somewhere off to her left in these same grasses, Jalonn had concealed himself to keep watch on the shoreline.
“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” Evénn said.
Agarwen had not seen him lying there, not far off to her right, staring up at the sky.
“I thought I’d look at the sea first.”
He did not answer. They rested there for some time without speaking. His eyes were upon the heavens, hers on the sea. Finally he stood up, and brushed the sand from his clothing. It was time for him to relieve Jalonn. She looked up, and their eyes met. He looked like he had spent the day trying to find the missing piece to a puzzle.
“You’re thinking about Arden,” she said.
“Aren’t you?”
In her mind she could hear herself laughing softly.
“I told you he would never betray her,” she said.
He looked closely at her for so long she wished he would go away. Then he nodded and went off to find Jalonn.
The fires burned all night. By morning tall plumes of black smoke drifted off eastward on the wind. To Arden it was like the morning he could remember only in bitterness and pain. The day before that he had chosen one love over another and he had chosen wrong. Every day since then he had walked the path of remorse he had blazed for himself. Had he chosen differently, he told himself, they both might have died, would have died even. But had they lived, even in this world there would have been light. Now, this morning, he sat beside the grave that divided them, a boundary neither could cross except with their love. All through the years he had mourned her and rued his choice. Beside the grave he sat and weighed the loss that his vengeance had not lessened. He sighed heavily and began the litany to clear his mind and attempt to find some peace. He closed his eyes and laid his hand on her grave.
Someone was coming up from behind him. By his walk he knew it was Niall.
“How’s the leg?” he asked quietly.
“Better,” Niall answered in a low voice. “May I speak with you, Arden?”
“I’d rather be alone, Niall.”
“Not today, Arden. I have some things I want to show you.”
Arden beckoned him to a seat.
Niall sat down opposite him, and stared awhile at the grave. Arden looked at him with a face that strove to be impassive, but Niall saw more deeply.
“What is it, Niall?”
“When I was in the City, I went to my old house.”
“I know. Jalonn didn’t think it such a good idea.”
“He may be right. It was painful. It changed me.”
“That’s what pain does.”
“Much of me wishes I had never gone there, but some of me is relieved I did. Do you understand?”
Arden pondered, his eyes straying to her grave. For a minute or so he did not reply.
“What was it you wished to show me?” he asked.
“First I must tell you the whole story of my homecoming.”
Niall then began to tell Arden of his house and his home, of his mother and father, of his sisters, of all he had felt and found and lost the day he finally came home. As he spoke he drew from his pack the hairbrush and the mirror, his mother’s needlework and his father’s book of poetry. One by one he passed them to Arden, who examined each of them reverently before handing them back. Niall told him of his rage and his despair. Once or twice Arden nodded slightly, keeping his lips tightly sealed to repress the pain of sympathy. When Niall finished, Arden looked carefully at him.
“Thank you for telling me. What will you do with the things you brought away?”
“I will give them to my children and my wife, to keep alive the memory of my family.”
“It is hard to face loss like this close up,” Arden said, casting his eyes down. “I am sorry for your sufferings, Niall.”
“As I am for yours,” Niall answered, and paused long enough for Arden to look up again, “and for my part in them.”
A fierce pain shot across Arden’s face, causing him to wince and avert his gaze, but soon his composure returned.
“It was no fault of yours,” he said earnestly.
“Arden, I married the woman my heart chose, and with her I have known every blessing. You were cheated of that.”
“Not least by my own choices.”
“You could not have saved her.”
Arden remained quiet, striving to rule his mind and heart. He wished Niall would leave him to study the pain which brimmed within him. At length Niall stood up and started to go, but after a few steps he stopped. With his head bowed, he looked back over his shoulder.
“She loved you, Arden,” Niall said.
Arden did not answer or watch him go. His eyes were shut tight. Then to his lips came a sudden, clean tang of salt, like the seas of lost summer mornings. And alone beside the grave of Sorrow, Arden wept the tears he could not weep thirty years ago.

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 15.1

Fifteen

For three nights Niall’s companions had ridden south and east from their camp near the mountains towards the curving line of the small hills and bluffs which divided the green fields of the coastlands from the sandy shore. At the first night’s end an old barn built into a hillside offered them rest and shelter from the rain. Evénn watched the whole day while the others slept in turn, but the hills and fields around them were quiet, just as they were the next day, which they spent in the burnt out shell of a country house. The third dawn found them camped in a small wood just north of the mouth of a broad and shallow river. When asked, Arden told them that this was the same stream they knew from the little valley at the feet of the Green Hills, the same one which had carried them beneath the bridge three nights before.
It was from this wood that Agarwen first looked upon the sea. When they had seen to the horses and eaten a bit, she and Jalonn were to rest, while Arden and Evénn stood guard. But Agarwen was too full of anticipation to sleep. She was about to see at last the sight she had yearned for since she was a little girl. The salt edge of the air, which grew keener as they came down to the sea, and the rush and thunder of the waves upon on the nearby sands, drew her on. From the eaves of the wood she stared in wonder at the meaning of glory – the sea purple with dawn and the morning star brilliant in a clear, blue band of fading night.
When Agarwen glimpsed the sea days ago in a blaze of gold along the world’s edge, she believed its beauty was all her heart could desire. Now that the sea stretched out before her, ever shifting, never changing, making sport of light and color, of shadow and of shape, it stirred her beyond all imagining. The immense, timeless realm suggested by the red-gold limb of the sun emerging from the horizon, as if the sea were vast enough to drown the sun itself, dwarfed the forests and mountains of her experience. With the rising of the sun Agarwen awoke to a longing she had never known, to leave behind the mountains and woods of her home and know the sea. But the time for that was not yet. She remained at the woods’ edge, half lit by morning.
The sight of her brought a smile to the face of Arden, who watched unseen from nearby. Her bliss made her radiant, even in a travel stained cloak and muddy boots. He knew how long Agarwen had waited for this day. Patience was a thing he understood. The joy and wonder so plain on her face touched him, but he could not share them. He loved the sea as a man loves what is lost. The sad pleasure of seeing it again arrested him. Arden had wished never to come here again, to the sea, the City and the graves. Only the dragon could have brought him here. Only the dragon could have made him suggest the house of Sorrow. Arden turned his face from Agarwen and the sea. He threw his hood up and pulled his cloak close about him.
As they moved northwards that night they crossed again beneath the clouds and into the rain. After midnight they began passing the remains of homes Arden knew well. Every half mile or so they came to a place he could put a name to, a house he had played in as a child, or visited as a young man. Of some so little remained that ruins were much too grand a name for them: a low mound covered in grass was more like proud flesh over an old scar. That was what Arden found when they moved through what had been the courtyard of his own home, a grassy rise where the house had stood, a bit of wall towards the sea, the curving stone rim of their well.
Though all the buildings around the courtyard had been burning when he and Jalonn hurried past long ago without stopping – Jalonn had not let him pause, but dragged him onward – it surprised him that no more of it was left. Tonight, too, they hurried, but now they sought the evil they had once fled. Now Arden led them on. For these were the fields of his youth and he knew them even on the darkest night. Presently they crossed the land where Hedále had lived with his parents and brother. They skirted the burned wood of snags and stumps which surrounded the grounds, and headed towards the sea.
In the hour before dawn they came through the cold rain and mist to the hillside they were seeking. It was a mound about twenty feet high and over a hundred feet long, like the back of a great green whale cresting the surface for a breath before diving again. It sat at the top of a slope that ran gently down to the shore. A dense screen of pines and holly bushes covered the mound and the upper reaches of the slope, between which ran a narrow lane. Even in the gloom it was clear that this place had escaped the ravages of the dragon, but no hands had tended the path or pruned back the bushes as they once did. Arden plunged in.
When they came near the northern end of the mound, Arden threw his leg over Impetuous’ back and jumped down from the saddle. Over his shoulder he could see Moonglow’s face and beyond it the dark outline of Evénn’s head and shoulders. Turning to the hillside, he forced his way through the overgrown holly bushes, which would have rendered the cellar door invisible even in full sunlight. The barbed leaves snatched at his clothing and scratched his face. He felt his way along, searching for the stone archway which led in to the door. A dozen feet to his right Arden found it and broke it open. Before him was a black hole which yawned into a greater void behind it.
“This is it,” he said, the first words he had uttered in a day, and stepped inside. His hands located the lanterns hanging on either side of the door, just where he remembered them. Then using some of the tinder he kept in his pack, he kindled a tiny blaze on the dirt floor. He made sure the lanterns still contained oil and lit them. One he hung back by the door, the other he took with him as he moved farther into the cellar.
When Evénn saw the faint light appear inside, he passed a loop of line around the bush in front of the door to pull it out of the way. After Agarwen and Jalonn led the horses inside, he followed, shutting the door behind him. A warm glow at odds with the chill sea-damp of the air lit the cellar. Row upon row of shelves laden with boxes and jars stretched away into the gloom. Evénn saw Arden, already deep into the cellar, holding up his lamp and studying everything around him with care and deliberation. The gap between the two pools of light was growing wider, the shadows in between them more profound.
Evénn watched Arden go. Every step was taking him into the past in ways that not even recounting his story could. That was memory. However tenaciously he clasped it to his heart, it was a still a story he told himself. This was real, and here memory burned like dragon fire. Evénn suddenly became aware of Agarwen at his side, and realized that the power of the vision in which Arden walked was drawing him in, too. Evénn knew such visions all too well. He shook them off and looked at Agarwen. On her face was a concern she could not hide. He called out to Arden, who stopped at the sound of his voice. He called again, and Arden turned back reluctantly.
In time they found more lanterns and oil as they searched for provisions that might yet be unspoiled. Arden discovered some jars of fruit, the labor of Lady Gwinlan, in the western part of the cellar. There the smell of the fire in which the house had perished was still strong. The wooden stairway, which had led up to the kitchen, had collapsed, its upper end charred black and twisted from the heat of the fire. What had been the door lay flat across the floor joists above their heads. Doubtless another mound of ashes and dirt lay piled on top of them. Roots hung down between the joists. There was only one way into and out of the cellar. It was their fortress, but like every fortress, it was also a trap.
After they had eaten some of the fruit – peaches, pears, and apples mostly – to save the precious lamp oil they doused every lantern but one and rested. Evénn cracked open the outer door, to let in a little of the morning and so they could hear any noise outside.
“The rain has stopped,” he said as he sat down.
He leaned his back against the wall just inside the door. His sword was drawn and its hilt rested on his shoulder. A thin ray of light from the new sun cast itself across the darkness. They could hear nothing but the wind in the holly bushes and the surf not far beyond them. Arden sat down to Evénn’s right, about ten feet away. His blade, too, was bare and cradled against his arm and shoulder. His hand rested on the guard and he thumbed the edge thoughtfully, while staring absently into space.
In the dim light admitted by the door, Jalonn could see him sitting there. After an hour Arden’s eyes closed and he bowed his head. In a few minutes the expression of pain and struggle that Arden had worn these last three days, ever since they had departed their camp to come here, left his face. The peace that Jalonn saw there now was seldom visible except when Arden slept, and not always even then. Jalonn, too, had heard Arden murmur an unforgotten name in his sleep, but what he saw now, he knew, was the peace of forgetfulness, which came only when the mind fully shed the burden of waking. He had seen it in many faces in his time. For their times were hard and many besides Arden had suffered. Some fled their pain in other ways, in drink, in the juice of the poppy, and down many other dark paths that had no turning. Arden did not walk those paths. Instead of oblivion, he grappled with his pain and his memories and held them tight, refusing to forget. And refusing to heal.
“Does he forget them now,” Jalonn wondered, “and dream of the life he wanted?”
But if Arden found any comfort there, Jalonn also knew that before long he would wake as he had seen him do often over the years he had known him. Forgetfulness would fade and his face would put back on its sadness. Arden’s face had changed some with the years. Gone from his eyes was the blazing rage of their first months together when Arden’s pain was always on the verge of bursting forth. Though he had been but a boy, it had made him a warrior to be feared, capable of defeating opponents of greater skill and experience; but the recklessness accompanying it also made him vulnerable. Arden’s body bore the scars, and Jalonn had saved his life more than once.
Time and the discipline of the Rangers had largely subdued that rage and under discipline it became a source of ever greater strength. But just as a father and mother can still hear, decades later, the voice of their little child in the grown son or daughter, so Jalonn could even now descry the shattered boy he had found beside those graves a lifetime ago; and as they drew nearer to the house of Sorrow he had seen that boy more clearly yet in the man who grew more silent by the hour. Arden was fighting to master what he could not master as a boy.
Knowing Arden as he did, Jalonn had foreseen this. For, though in the months since Evénn had come Arden had become less solitary, and at times even affable, Jalonn knew that Arden would withdraw from them once again. How could he not when he was preparing to step once again onto the stage where the scenes of his life’s destruction had begun to be played out even before the Fall? After many years of loneliness and wandering, Arden was returning home to exact his vengeance, but the heart which he had lost, though never forsaken, could not be restored. The dead could not return.
Jalonn roused himself from these reflections to find Evénn looking at him. In the elf’s eyes he thought he perceived an understanding of all that had been passing through his mind. It irked him that sometimes Evénn seemed to know what they were thinking, as did the suspicion that he knew more than he had told them. After a moment Evénn withdrew his gaze, sighed and reached down to stroke the wolf who lay beside him, his nose wedged in the narrow opening they had left, sniffing the air outside.
Looking around, Jalonn saw Argos curled in a ball against Arden’s side. Both slept. The horses were unsaddled and tethered in a line down the cellar’s broad central aisle. From time to time they shifted their feet. Agarwen, Jalonn saw, was looking at Arden, her face a mask of concern and affection. As ever it grieved Jalonn to see her like this. For he knew how it shamed Arden to be unable to requite her love; yet it was part of her nature never to relinquish any hope entirely. He caught the glimmer of that pain in Arden’s eyes whenever he stole an unobserved glance at her.
“Agarwen,” he whispered, “you must sleep. Your watch begins in two hours.”
She met his eyes, then lay down reluctantly and rolled away from him, pulling her blanket up over her shoulder.
Evénn looked at him again and nodded. Jalonn closed his own eyes and slept, his back as always to the wall, his face to the door. Watch succeeded watch. In turn Agarwen, then Arden, then Jalonn joined the tireless elf, who yielded his post but did not sleep.
In the dusk Arden and Agarwen slipped out to take up positions atop either end of the hill, to keep watch for a few hours before it was time to go. On her right, down the slope past the stunted pines and the beach grass, small waves were tumbling onto the shore, their foam still bright even now. On her left was a broad open area with a heap of earth and ruins at its center: the gardens and the house. During the day Agarwen had kept trying to imagine them. She summoned up every detail of Arden’s story she could recall, but they were much larger than his tale suggested. Agarwen found this dispiriting. The memories and emotions that haunted Arden elsewhere proved almost tangible here, even for her.
Directly ahead, off beyond the woods and fields to the north, was the City, their destination. Like every Ranger, Agarwen knew much of Narinen, though she had never been there. Only a few score still lived who had. During her training she had studied it – or her as Arden and Niall usually put it – to learn its history and laws, its ways and its streets. To the Rangers, the keepers of memory, the City stood for all that was best and all that would be again. And on that morning when they came down the hills from Baran’s camp and saw it shining in the sun, Narinen had seemed all of that; tonight between the moonless dark and the gloom of her thoughts she saw it as the present ghost of all that was lost.
Yet Niall was somewhere within those walls. She wondered where he was, and whether he was safe. Only one thing, she knew, could keep him from the door at the appointed hour, but she wished he were here with her now. He would have made some irreverent jest to make her laugh. After three days of dour silence from Arden and spare words at best from Master Jalonn and Evénn, a laugh was just what she needed. Instead she spent the mirthless hours of her watch thinking of the fallen world into which she had been born, and of the dead girl in the garden whose fate somehow touched them all.
Agarwen was asking herself what it would have been like to grow up in a world without such cares when she heard the cellar door creak. The soft hoot of an owl summoned her and Arden from their posts. She came upon Evénn near the door, the wolf before him and looking at her. His tail wagged slowly a time or two. Jalonn was just emerging from the holly bushes. Beyond them she could just make out Arden’s form, tall and broad shouldered, his face invisible beneath his hood. Argos paced around him, his own impatience to be gone mirroring his master’s. At a signal from Jalonn Arden led them swiftly around the northern end of the hill and up into the garden.
“Careful there,” came his voice in a hush.
His hand darted out to his left, a gesture almost dismissive, but it lingered too long, pointing at the three graves. Over the years the mounds heaped over them had sunk so low that they were now scarcely distinguishable from the earth around them. Agarwen was surprised that she had not recognized them for what they were during her hours on watch.
“Here is where his heart dwells,” she thought with a pang.
Behind her at the rear of the line Jalonn paused, put one hand to his breast, and bowed his head a moment before hastening after his companions. Then they were out of the garden and passing through the trees beyond it. Quickly they crossed the fields between the woods and the City, slanting always towards the postern door. The line along which Arden led them was as true as the line he had followed the morning after the Fall. Once they saw a patrol of two dozen troopers heading south along the road from the gate, but their leisurely progress made clear that their duties tonight were routine. Wherever Niall was, he had raised no alarms inside Narinen.
A quarter of a mile from the postern the companions stopped for more than an hour while Evénn counted and timed the guards walking atop the walls. Every twenty minutes four soldiers strode by. Once Evénn was satisfied, Arden led them forward again. They crept closer a hundred yards at a time, flitting from shadow to shadow, ditch to ditch, and tree to tree, until they lay flat in the tall grass just beyond the road that ringed the City. Another hour went by. No challenges rang out from above. No alarms were raised. Then Evénn raised his hand to signal that they were between patrols. Arden stole across the road with the others at his heels.
As Evénn had suggested days ago, the roses at the base of the walls still lived, though they grew untended and wild. Long, riotous branches were everywhere, armed with thorns that bit and clung. When the companions reached the door, they crouched as close beneath the bushes as they could. And they waited. Agarwen looked back out at the stars high in the southern sky. The Dragonslayer was at his zenith, and Agarwen smiled. It was midnight.
But the hour came and went with no sign of Niall. No one unbolted the door. No sounds could be heard from the corridor within. Nearly an hour later, Evénn suddenly raised his head.
“There is battle within,” he murmured.
They all heard steel ringing dimly on steel. Almost two dozen blows they counted, and tensed at each one, fearing the raised voice that would summon the guards, expecting a horn call and the rush of booted feet along the wall. The last four blows were very heavy, coming quickly one upon another. Then all fell silent. Minutes or hours later they heard the bolts rasping in the door. Arden leaped to his feet and waited beside it, his sword poised for a thrust.



In sunset's red hour Niall looked out upon the City again. In the raking light, every wall, every building, every surface he could see was tinged with the dying light. That suited him well. For since that morning he had burned to rush from the house to kill as many of the enemy as he could before he himself fell. Against these bloody thoughts he forced himself to set his love for his family and his duty to the others. Over and over he told himself that if he failed in his duty he would fail also in his love. It was barely enough. All day he sat in that room, sharpening his sword and dagger. When he was done, he thumbed their edges and whetted them again, over and over until they owned a keenness as fierce as the rage that possessed him. With each pass of his whetstone, Niall counted a life he would take.
He was satisfied. His blades could be no sharper. He wiped the blood from his thumbs and put his gloves back on. Hours more remained before midnight. Strangely, the City’s bloody aspect soothed him, all the more so as the deepening twilight robbed it of its color. In the living red and the gray and black to which it yielded, he found a mirror of his soul. In that hour he was calm, but it was, Niall knew, the dead tranquility of one whose illusions had all been crushed, one who knew only despair and the desire to strike with no regard for his own life. Fey is what the old Rangers of the Valley would call him, as some had long called Arden. He knew that, too, and he did not care. It amused him that now, as Arden seemed to be creeping back to the light and life of men at last, he should suffer this turn himself. He smiled, but it was the smile of one who did not care.
As he stood gazing out the northern window of that room towards the shattered halls and buildings which surrounded the main square, in the last glimmer of light there came a flash of red. And the dragon crawled from a large hole in the roof of the Hall of Kings. He paused on its peak. Turning his head slowly on his elegant neck, the dragon surveyed his realm below. Then he clambered swiftly up the ruined western tower and perched there, stretching his vast span of wings. A long while he stayed there and looked down on Narinen. At length he took flight more easily than any bird, and came sweeping low over the square, towards Niall, who cursed not having Arden beside him with Mahar’s bow in his strong hand. Now they could do it. They could wait until last moment – till the dragon was about to pass out of sight overhead, till he was so close that not even he could react in time – and let the arrow fly.
But Arden and the bow were not there. They were at the house of Sorrow. The beast circled back north again, rising over the broken roof and the unequal towers of the Hall. Several sharp beats of his wings sped him out and away from the City. He was gone into the gloom of the north.
“Damn him,” Niall growled. “Damn him.”
The object of all his hatred and of all their efforts had just slipped away. Niall watched and watched, while the few, bright stars of evening gave way to the tens of thousands which lit the night. He strained his eyes to catch the shadow of the dragon returning against the starlight. But there was no shadow to see, neither above nor on the roof and towers of the Hall of Kings.
At last Niall’s time ran out. Midnight was an hour away. The others would be somewhere in the fields outside the postern door, waiting for him. It was time to go, but halfway to the door a sudden thought stopped him. As much as he regretted coming here, this house was still his home. He did not wish to leave it empty-handed. From his sisters’ room he took the hairbrush and hand mirror. In the parlor downstairs he plucked the scrap of needlework from beneath the chair, and in the library the book of poems from the shelf. He stowed them as carefully as he could in his pack. Then he loosened his sword and dagger in their sheaths and, bow in hand, turned his back on the house of his youth.
From there to the postern was little more than a mile, but for Niall the going was painfully slow. At this hour not many people were left on the streets. Most were hurrying home, but some tarried to have a drink and a few minutes of talk in makeshift taverns. Dim lights burned in upper windows. But except for the watchmen on patrol, everyone he saw in the torchlight outside the taverns appeared poor, their clothing worn and frayed, their faces often dirty. Niall viewed them all from shadowy doorways and around the corners of the alleys by which he wove his way from street to street. He never stayed on any one street for long.
Once he turned into a narrow street which he had expected to find empty since in his youth it was home to the workshops of small craftsmen where no one had any business at this hour. Instead a small crowd of about twenty men and women were gathered around an open fire outside a tawdry shop. They talked and laughed loudly, like people deep in their wine. Niall flattened himself against a building and watched them closely. They were too taken up with their pleasures to have seen him. He looked the other way up the street. There was no side street or alley he could cut through. Niall was tempted to go back, but there was something about their laughter that prompted him not to retrace his steps and seek another way around. He gathered himself and strode straight down the opposite side of the street. But their laughter died as they spied him, and in silence they pretended not to watch him pass. It was only when he reached the next street over that Niall remembered he was cloaked and hooded in the black of the dragon.
A few more twists and turns and Niall was there. He did not know it, but he stood in the same spot, his back against the same wall, as Arden had done many years before. Here at the edge of the City all was darkness and starlight, and as he waited in the stillness Niall thought he heard the slightest noise from around the corner. Slowly he edged to the very corner of the building, drawing an arrow from his quiver and stringing it in his bow. His head inched forward until he could see. The door was held against him.
Six cloaked figures stood before the door, motionless as stone carvings on a frieze. Their bearing and mute discipline made clear that these men were soldiers, unlike the bullying watchmen he had seen elsewhere in Narinen. He drew his head back. The door was some thirty yards away. For some time he waited to see if by chance they might leave or be summoned away, but the minutes slipped by until an hour had passed. While he stood there counting his breaths and trying to quell all the feelings this day had given rise to within him, he considered the departure of the dragon and the presence of these men here tonight, at a door previously unguarded. But this was no time, he told himself, to sort that out. It was now well after midnight and every minute’s delay left his friends outside the walls and vulnerable to unfriendly eyes. It was time to act.
Before he had fully rounded the corner, his first arrow had felled the nearest guard; seconds later he loosed the next into the guard beside the first. His third pierced the throat of another as he started to run at Niall, drawing his sword as he came. The other three were closing on Niall now. Another arrow would leave him no time to draw his sword. Niall threw his bow at the feet of the foremost, who leaped high to avoid it. As his feet touched the pavement again, Niall was upon him, sword in hand. He stooped low and cut his legs from under him.
Then he was up, dagger in his left hand and sword in his right. On another night Niall might have let the two come to him, and circled to one side, using the nearer opponent as a shield against the further. But not this night. He attacked them with a relentless passion that would have baffled the friends waiting for him even now outside the door.
Nor did his enemies expect his headlong charge. Niall fought them two handed, striking at his sword-hand foe, but only parrying and feinting with his dagger. As Niall wished, the swordsman to his left sensed in this an advantage he could press. And when Niall’s sword-hand opponent slashed at Niall, the second lunged forward with a killing thrust. But Niall was not there. Instead of parrying the blow of the first, he had leapt backwards out of range, which exposed his lunging second opponent to a forehand slash to his throat. Then in three vicious blows Niall beat down the guard of the last man and with a fourth killed him.
He checked each of the fallen, his dagger ready in his hand: all were dead. Niall sheathed his weapons and retrieved his bow. Finding the inner door of the postern unlocked, he opened it. Inside he groped his way along for about ten feet before he met any obstruction. It seemed to be a large wooden box as wide as the corridor and nearly as tall as he was. Returning to the street, he dragged the bodies into the corridor. For now the night would conceal the blood in the street. Niall closed the door behind him.
In the utter blackness of the tunnel, Niall felt his way back to the box and heaved himself to its top, but he had not crawled more than a few feet before his hand reached out and touched nothing. He jumped back down and continued along the right hand wall, expecting some new obstruction. There was nothing to block his way. His hands touched the oaken outer door. Niall found the bolts and drew them one by one, then pushed the door open a few inches.
“Niall,” he heard Arden say in a voice soft but urgent, “we heard swords. Are – ”
“The door was guarded,” he answered sharply. “And the dragon is gone. We have failed.”
Back as they had come they fled. Arden would not leave until Evénn and Jalonn dragged him from the open doorway. If their approach to Narinen had seemed to them slow, with brief intervals of haste woven together with watchful delays, their return was slower still, though nothing but silence pursued them. No horns, no shouting, no South Gate flung open to loose squadrons of horsemen upon them. Niall felt it most, knowing the blood he had spilled behind him and hoping they could reach their horses before the chase began. Though it was clear by now that none of the patrols had been close enough to hear his brief affray with the guards at the door, soon enough an officer would come to check their post or to bring them their relief.
For the others the journey was also long with concern. They knew only the little Niall had said at the door. Jalonn and Evénn had not let them linger. Explanations could wait until they knew they had no enemy behind them. Arden walked last of all, debating whether he should turn back to the City alone or wait until he could hear Niall’s tale. Agarwen stayed close by Arden.
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