In the forest far beyond the fire’s glow Arden sat upon a rock with Argos beside him. His anger slowly cooled, but the better part of an hour went by before he was calm enough to think clearly. It had been many years since the rage that nearly destroyed him after the Fall had burned so fiercely. Tonight he had to leave the camp to contain it. Now Arden began rehearsing what Evénn had said about the dragons. He turned the information over and over in his mind: how the dragons had first appeared long ago; how they had been defeated; how the same dragons had returned thirty years ago, stronger in unison than ever they had been alone; and how the truth of their nature had been concealed, lest they return once more.
“Wait. What did he mean by that?” he said aloud. “What were his words? ‘Lest the misguided or evil later seek to bring them back?’ What does that mean? That they can be summoned into this world, by us? But who would do that? And why?”
The thought of it made Arden feel sick. He sat there rigidly, fists clenched and arms folded tightly across his chest.
“The consequences of our actions,” he said at last as he stood up. “Our actions.”
Arden’s wrath blazed up within him once more. These were questions that Evénn must answer without riddling or evasion. When the Ranger reached the camp, he found Evénn sitting much as he had left him an hour ago.
“Are you calmer now?” the elf asked softly without looking up.
Arden ignored this, and proceeded.
“You said that the true nature of the dragons was concealed, so that no one would seek to bring them back.”
“So they can be summoned from the world of the spirits?”
“And we are now paying the price because someone did so?”
When the elf finally looked up, graven on his face was the saddest look Arden had ever seen, rife with pain and regret for a secret that had caused untold harm. If Arden had not been so consumed by anger, it would have broken his heart. Yet a sickening dread of the answer crawled within him. For all that, he had to know.
“Who?” he snarled, impatient of even a moment’s respite.
“We did,” Evénn responded.
“You? The elves?”
The pain of thirty years of mourning came roaring up from the darkness within Arden, and filled the heart that he thought could hold only bitterness. It blinded him to everything but hatred and vengeance. All Arden’s broken childhood faith in god, in the songs, in their hero, all his grief for friends lost, family lost, country lost – all this long despair – all his wonder at meeting Evénn, and all the tender hope that had flickered within him against his will, burst from him in a desperate howl of fury.
His sword swept from its sheath in a great arc. Its blade glittered red in the firelight, seeming to glow with the flame of Arden’s passion to slay this elf, this hero of a people who had betrayed the age old trust and loyalty of his own and murdered them. In this madness all Arden knew was that Evénn must die.
He leaped across the fire, and swung his sword at Evénn, who rolled out of the way and sprang to his feet, drawing his own sword in time to deflect Arden’s next stroke. Without word or cry, Arden pressed his attack, his sword slashing and thrusting at the elf. Evénn parried and moved aside again and again, always giving ground. Throughout Evénn was calm and in control, circling backwards around the clearing, his feet always sure beneath him, his swordplay quick and deft. Arden attacked and Evénn defended. Their blades rang constantly. Their feet scuffled in the dirt. The dog and wolf lowered their heads and looked on, uncertain.
At length Arden’s body could no longer sustain the fury of his onslaught. His breathing became labored. His sword weighed heavily in his hands. Though nearly staggering with exhaustion, he kept up the attack, but now Evénn stopped and held his ground. Now he began to drive Arden back. In four blows he disarmed the Ranger; his fifth slashed the dull edge of his curved sword across Arden’s ribs, driving the wind from his lungs even as he turned to reach for the blade that Evénn had just struck from his hand. Then the elf was upon him and threw him to the ground. His sword caressed Arden’s throat.
Arden eyed the hilt of his sword, which lay only inches from his outstretched hand.
“It’s no use,” Evénn warned. The pressure of his blade increased.
Arden glared up at him, his eyes burning with tears that never fell. For several minutes they remained still, neither moving. A passerby would have thought them statues, but not even Haldor of Talor could have rendered the regret in Evénn’s countenance or the fury in Arden’s. The mad light in the Ranger’s eye slowly dimmed. The elf put up his sword and walked away.
“Why?” Arden sat up and asked, his voice still thick with passion.
“Why indeed?” Evénn said, with a flash of bitterness. “I wish you had asked before you tried to kill me. Why? Folly and error. You recall I spoke of the temptations of the elves?”
“In the tale of our years the world seemed to grow old. We mistook change for decline, and thought the world better and more beautiful long ago. We saw suffering and wished to right it. We saw illness and wished to cure it. We wearied of watching all but ourselves wither. We wanted to restore the way we thought things had been. Perhaps if so many of our friends and kin had not died in the first war, we would have been wiser. In the end we forgot that the world was as the creator allowed it to be, for reasons we did not need to understand.”
“But how could the dragons fix all that?” Arden asked wearily. “Good cannot come from evil.”
“Perhaps not. But the evil dragons were not the ones the elves wished to summon.”
“There are others?”
“Nine in all,” Evénn replied.
“Nine?” Arden said. “My teachers never – ”
“Your teachers did not know of them,” Evénn murmured. “The tale is told only in our most ancient writings.”
“And the elves saw fit to withhold this knowledge from us,” Arden said in disgust, “as if we were children.”
“But to us you are as children, my friend,” Evénn said, but with such kindness that the anger which glimmered in Arden’s eyes faded until it could scarcely be told from the flicker of the campfire. “Even among my own people there were never many who possessed this knowledge, and by the time the dragons came again only a few remained who could have read the tale if they had known where to find it.”
“Perhaps if more had known these secrets, the folly of the elves might have been checked.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. The many can be as unwise as the few, Arden, and just as arrogant.”
“Tell me of these dragons, Evénn.”
“God’s first children were the one and the eight: the great dragon, the mightiest of all, through whom god made the world; and the eight who labored with him to carry out the creator’s designs as he made them known to the one. But when they had done so, and creation unfolded in splendor before them, four of the eight mistook for their own the power they wielded by god’s sufferance. They smiled to think that this realm of the dawn was theirs to do with as they chose. When the other four chastised them for their presumption, they would not repent. Then the great dragon appeared, but still they would not submit. He cast out the four, out beyond the three worlds, where even the starlight does not go.
“But from the wastes of their exile they sent whispering dreams of power to elves and men. All these fools needed to do to invite them from the darkness to the light was sing the words of a great incantation. Dominion over all things would be theirs. All lies. But one listened and brought evil upon the world.”
“You mean Talinar, I suppose,” Arden said. “Yet another truth you hid from us. Tell me, did you slay him as the songs say, or is that another lie?”
“Yes, I slew him,” Evénn answered, “but even so the dragons remained, and many brave men and elves perished to destroy them.”
“What happened this time?” Arden asked.
“Many of our people felt that, if we could but summon the good dragons, the world might be restored with their help to what it was before the others had come.”
“But even then there was sickness and death and injustice.”
“True, even then the world was so, but my people forgot that. Some of us tried to remind them. They would not listen. They remembered the world as they preferred to remember it. Perhaps they, too, heard the whispers of the evil ones in their dreams, more cunning now than of old, this time promising the power to heal and restore instead of the power to dominate and control. As I said, time changes us, too, and we can deceive ourselves as well as any man.”
“How then did the evil ones come when the elves summoned the good? Surely even foolish elves would have recognized what the song of enchantment meant.”
“That is where error complements folly. It was the same enchantment. Only the name of the spirits they wished to summon was different, but the difference between the names was quite subtle, amounting to the slightest distinction in the intonation of a vowel and the aspiration of a consonant. Only a great loremaster of our ancient language could hear and pronounce it. But the one who did so erred. With a slip of the tongue, he named the wrong beings, and in naming called them.”
“What makes you so sure it was a mistake?”
“The loremaster was my father.”
“Your father! But he was a wise king, or so the songs tell us.”
“Yes, he was wise. But the last of the songs was composed eleven hundred years ago, before even your last king put off his crown and established the Republic. Did I not say that even we change? In longing for what he thought had been before the dragons first came, and in desiring to cure the ills of this world, his wisdom failed. He was not alone in this. Nearly all of the elf lords felt as he did, but the imperfection of their vision betrayed the good they intended. Blaming the evil dragons for the wrongs of the world, they concluded that the good dragons would restore the balance. And maybe they would have, had they come. Those elves were fools, my father included, but honest fools. The misspoken word was a mistake, terrible and fateful, but a mistake nonetheless.
“The moment my father erred, he knew what was to come; he knew his folly for what it was. He put forth all his powers of enchantment to attempt to prevent the barrier between this world and that of the spirits from opening. He fought to stop the dragons even as they entered and became incarnate. All the elf lords fought beside him, but their strength was too little, just as their wisdom had been too late. They are all dead now.”
“How did you survive?”
“I was not there. They were all far to the east in the Valley of Encounter, where your people and mine first met long ago. Only atop the Tower of Memory could the spell be cast. My brother told me what happened. Of all those present, he alone escaped. The dragons let him live. They wanted him to bear witness. For that I pity him. My father and the elf lords did not live to witness the darkness they brought upon us. My brother was not so fortunate. He perished in our homeland, in the last battle, the same as your brother.”
“It sounds to me,” Arden said, “as if your father and the others justly paid for the ill they caused. It is the innocent who were unfortunate.”
“I cannot dispute that.”
“Good. So where were you when this happened? Why did you not try to stop it?”
“I did. I tried to dissuade them, I and the few who felt as I did. We told them there was no need, that the world was as it should be, that it was too dangerous, that even the wise made mistakes and that the wise should know that and be guided by us. Until the moment they set sail from Elashandra for the east we kept trying. Whether they were deceived by the dragons, or merely by themselves, they were deaf to all we said. I remained behind and prayed that I was wrong. Yet the instant my father misspoke the name of the beasts, a shadow fell upon my heart, and I knew that we were lost.”
“You should have stopped them, fought them, not let them go.”
“Was I to raise my sword against my father, then? And my brother? And all those we held wise for thousands of years? That’s easy to say, Arden.” Evénn paused and sighed heavily. “But often in the night, when the dead seem as innumerable as the stars themselves, I have thought it would have been better.”
“Yes,” Arden responded, “it would have. For thousands of years we thought you wise, and we have become slaves, or outlaws, or corpses because of it.”
“As have my people,” said Evénn.
“But your people, not mine, brought this upon us all. And the battle you fought outside Elashandra was not the last battle, Evénn. That was fought at Narinen. We had no warning the dragons were coming. We didn’t know you had already betrayed us. For all your good intentions, you loosed this plague upon us. You speak of folly, but it was pride that led your people to it. You thought you could do anything. You forgot, as you said a little while ago, that it is better not to meddle in some affairs at all.
“I fought in that last battle, a boy believing in all that I had been taught of the elves, and god, and justice, and you, Evénn. And you. The fields before Narinen, my city, the shattered gates and houses, the streets choked with the dead and the dying, the smoking rubble of nearly two thousand years of history – those were the last battlefield. Not many survived. I have often wished I didn’t. All love, all faith perished that day, on the altar of elvish pride. But still I would not conjure dragons, good or evil, not even to win back all who died that day.”
“That,” Evénn said, “is not what I saw in your eyes when I first mentioned the possibility of such things to you. I liked that look even less than the madness I saw there a little while ago. Your fury I understand. I can’t blame you for it. But that look in your eyes? I have seen it before and no good came of it.”
“Then I did not know what had happened. Now I do.”
“Yes, now you do. And so do the elves.”
“We have learned too late then,” said Arden.
“That is the way of things.”
Throughout their talk, Arden had remained seated on the ground. Now he climbed to his feet, his side aching. Bending to pick up his sword, he winced.
“That was quite a heavy blow, Evénn,” Arden grunted.
“You aimed heavier at me, my friend. You left me little choice.”
“No, I suppose I didn’t. Forgive me for attacking you. None of this was your fault. And you’re right. I could not ask anyone to raise his sword against his father. I could not have done so either.”
“I know,” Evénn replied. “Now if you mix up some of the herbs I gathered for the horses, you will find yourself quickly healed.”
“But I have only watched you do it. I have not the skill.”
“You have enough for bruised ribs, and you heard the words I pronounced over them.”
“Very well,” Arden said and went to prepare the herbs, but before he had gotten far, Evénn called his name. There was a question in his tone.
“What do I want?”
“Yes, what do you want?”
“I want the world as it was when I was young of course,” he quietly answered.
“You can’t have that.”
“Then I would say I want to slay the dragons or die trying.”
“Why have you not tried before?”
“I was alone. When I was a boy, before I even came to the Rangers, they sent out two parties to kill the dragons. They failed and the price the dragons made our people pay for the attempt was horrible. Since then the Masters have said that it is not yet time to try again.”
“You are no longer alone,” Evénn said. “Would you try now?”
“Then perhaps I have found a part of what I have long sought.”
“One who is willing.”
“We shall speak more of this when we see the Masters. Now let us rest. Tomorrow the road grows steeper.”