At a signal from Jalonn, Arden and Evénn mounted their horses. Three of the Rangers then approached the troopers’ horses, which kept shying away from the strangers until Evénn came over and spoke to them, taking each by the bridle and whispering softly into their ears. At this they were soothed and submitted to the Rangers, who looked upon Evénn with even greater admiration. Now the Ranger who had handled the hawk emerged from the trees again, riding his own horse and leading Jalonn’s, a tall bay called Touchstone, by the reins. As soon as Jalonn swung himself up into the saddle, the seven of them headed south into the forest. The last Ranger stood gazing after them until long after they were gone.
The woods, so crowded with Guardians of the Forest only a few minutes ago, now seemed empty. They rode abreast over a broad front, and their course wandered much. At times thickets barred their way, or brambles plucked at their clothes as they passed, but the floor of the forest was mostly open and it was possible to see a long way in the autumn light beneath the trees. Nor was there any trace of a path that could lead the enemy to the Valley. Evénn carefully scanned the ground they rode over, but even his sharp eyes could not pick one out. The Forest of Tasar looked much the same as it did the last time he had come this way, in the company of a young Ranger named Raynall. The trees were slightly older. That was all.
They crossed many streams, some deep, some shallow, all cold and dashing noisily downhill towards the Plains of Reith, first of all the Swift, which Arden had called the Seaborne when they met it on the high slopes yesterday. Here below it ran broad, loud, and swift as its name, beneath a broad-leafed canopy of oak and beech and walnut. The day grew sleepy and warm. For here, east of the mountains, the summer lingered on the wind and in green leaves just edged in red and gold.
Through the long afternoon Evénn and the Rangers rode dappled with sunlight and shadow, wading more often through pools of golden sun among the trees than across streams and brooks. Then clouds sodden with rain overtopped the mountains to the west, and a light but steady drizzle began to fall. By evening the rain had grown heavier. With their hoods pulled up and cloaks gathered about them, they settled down for the night beneath an old oak, and thought their fire could be larger.
In the gray dawn they set off again. The downpour muted their spirits and stopped what little conversation the Master would allow. After noon they came to a lively river, turbulent with the rainwater which lesser streams were feeding it. It would have barred their way had they needed to cross it, but this was the River of the Stars. It leaped down glittering from the mountain of the same name, then raced across the isolated valley which the Rangers called home. Jalonn turned west at the river bank and led them back towards the mountains. On either side of the river the land rose quickly and steeply, and soon became a dim gorge, its rocky cliffs looming two hundred feet above their heads. The air roared with the echo of rushing water, which grew louder as the gorge narrowed. Near the end there was scarcely enough room for man or horse to walk beside the river.
Then suddenly they exited the gorge and the Valley of the Rangers opened before them, nearly four miles across at its widest point, and hedged on all sides by granite walls that dwarfed the cliffs at the mouth of the gorge, the Valley’s one connection to the forest beyond. At the far end rose the loftiest of all the Gray Mountains, called the Mountain of the Stars because its summit seemed to pierce the very heavens. The first men to dwell here – it was so long ago now that few remembered them – were sages sent by the kings of the wide land of Narinen to study the stars. On the mountain’s upper slopes where no tree grew, amid snows never known to melt, they built a watchtower. There the hottest summer afternoon was like a cool evening of autumn, and a winter’s night more bitter than regret.
When the Rangers came to make this vale their home and their fortress during the first war against the spirit dragons thirteen centuries ago, the star-masters remained, counting and naming the stars, tracking their movements and striving to understand them, but as old age and death took them one by one, the king sent none to replace them. For the Valley of the Rangers was to be the most secret of all Narinen’s hidden places, a last haven of strength and in time of learning also. And so it was still. For thirty years the red dragon and his men had sought it in vain.
None but the Rangers knew where the fortress lay. Few outsiders ever visited, three or four perhaps in a hundred years, and they had been brought there on meandering, invisible paths through the broad forests. Fewer still could have found their way back alone, even if they had been able to escape the Guardians’ lethal vigilance. No one ever had. Today was the first day in centuries that anyone but a Ranger had entered here without first securing the permission of the Masters.
The fortress itself was carved into the living rock at the foot of the mountain. Even one standing in the open middle of the Valley would have missed its entrance if he did not know where to look for it, hidden beneath the two hundred foot tall pines which stood guard at the base of the granite cliff at the Valley’s western end. What few windows there were lay concealed behind those pines. Centuries of delving and building within the mountain had expanded the fortress within to hold many rooms and galleries and armories on several levels as well as the great library commanded by the seer king. There were stables, too, and forges and kitchens cunningly vented to disperse the smoke of their fires through many winding chimneys, so it seemed no more than the mists that cloaked the broad and lofty shoulders of the Mountain of the Stars.
Arden, Evénn, and the Rangers entered the valley as the second day of their journey verged on evening. The wolf, unsure of himself for once, kept close beside Evénn when Argos raced ahead to be met by his kin, the many other hounds that followed the Rangers into the perils of the lands outside. The rain still fell steadily as they neared the pines by the gates. There they came upon more than a hundred Rangers clad like Arden, Master Jalonn, and the others, some seated cross-legged on the turf, others down on one knee, but all with bowed heads. Facing them and kneeling on a platform which sat like a porch outside the gates of the citadel was an old man, his white hair long, his beard cropped close, his face wrinkled and tan, his eyes closed; and he was leading the Rangers in what they called the Time of Reflection. Jalonn and the other Rangers dismounted to join them, but not Arden. Evénn eyed him, half amused, half curious. Arden ignored him.
“Isn’t that Raynall?” Evénn leaned close to Arden and whispered.
For the present Raynall and the rest of the Rangers did not heed them, intent as they were on their meditation. All that could be heard was the rain falling and the dogs yelping and barking across the Valley. Most kept their distance, but a few came to join their masters, as Argos did after fifteen minutes or so. It was the solemn moment when sunset approached and the Rangers reflected on what and who they were, as Rangers, as mortals, as part of a long line of parents and children and lives and deaths. Finally Master Raynall spoke in a calm and thoughtful voice. Evénn smiled. The sound of that voice brought many memories of his time here back to him.
“Look upon the sun and the stars,” Raynall said.
“Know that god made them,” the gathering responded.
“Look upon the sky and the clouds.”
“Know that god made them.”
“Look upon the mountains and the seas.”
“Know that god made them.”
“Look upon the flowers and the trees.”
“Know that god made them.”
“Look upon the creatures of land and sea and sky.”
“Know that god made them.”
“Look upon yourself.”
“Know that god made you.”
“Know that you are a finite part of an infinite whole that heeds not your cares or your hurry,” Raynall said after a longer pause.
“But know that god does,” they replied with one voice.
“Be still. Be still. Be still.”
“And know that you are not god.”
For several minutes more they stayed as they were. Then a young boy at the front of the crowd stood up and approached Raynall. He held out his hand to help the old man to his feet, but it was clear to Evénn this evening, just as it had been decades earlier with a different Master, that this was more a ritual of respect for the Master and his years than it was a necessity. Raynall took the boy’s hand, but got up easily himself. He then bowed deeply to the Rangers. The Time of Reflection was at an end. The others, too, now got to their feet, and some turned to look at Arden and Evénn. Raynall gazed over their heads at Evénn as if he were gazing across time itself. He smiled in recognition and nodded to him, then to Arden. Both bowed in return, and Raynall beckoned to them.
They dismounted and began leading their horses forward through the crowd of Rangers, who stepped aside as they came, some talking quietly in small groups, others preferring to be alone as if in continued meditation. But the eyes of all were upon the two. As they passed, many nodded and welcomed them, bowing or extending a hand and a smile to Arden. Most were men, but there were several dozen women present, clad in gray or green and wearing a sword and dagger.
“You’ve been away too long, Arden,” said one of the men. Evénn guessed he was several years older than Arden.
“Perhaps I have, Niall. I often think so when I return,” Arden replied.
“Then you should return more often,” added a much younger woman standing at Niall’s shoulder. “Your friends have missed you these last three years.”
“And I have missed them, Agarwen," Arden smiled in answer, clasping their hands quickly and moving on. “We’ll speak more later. Evénn and I must greet the Master.”
Evénn nodded to Niall and Agarwen, and followed Arden towards the platform where Raynall stood. Jalonn was already at Raynall’s side, speaking very quietly. Nor were they alone. Five others stood around them in a circle, listening. As Jalonn spoke, Raynall’s eyes sought out Evénn’s and never left them. Evénn could just make out Jalonn’s words. He was quickly recounting all that happened yesterday morning and giving his assessment of it.
At that moment two young Rangers stepped up to Arden and Evénn. They bowed deeply, respectfully, and offered to tend to their horses for them, but as they did so they eyed the wolf at Evénn’s side with some care.
“Don’t concern yourself about him,” Evénn said to them. “Never yet has he harmed a friend. He is no kin to the wolves you know. He has never served or done evil.”
“We have no doubt of that, sir, since he comes here with you,” one of them said courteously, “but our long enmity with the wolves we know has taught us caution.”
“And so it should, but I have learned better in his company,” the elf said. “He has proven a faithful friend to me, and Argos here has the wisdom to know friend from foe. They have become fast friends in but a short time.”
“Then we shall not let it be said that we are less wise than our hounds,” the youth replied.
“Nor should you,” said Evénn.
With that Evénn withdrew the roll of cloth from Moonglow’s saddle, and let the two young men lead him and Arden’s horse away to be stabled, groomed, and fed. Then he looked down at Argos and the wolf. They were looking at him expectantly, then glancing at a group of wolfhounds some distance away. A plea was in their eyes.
“Arden,” he said, drawing his attention to them, “Argos wishes to introduce my wolf to his kin.”
“Go on, then, Argos,” Arden said to the hound, and, Evénn signaling his agreement to the wolf, both wolf and dog bolted off towards the waiting hounds, who met them as dogs will, with inquisitive noses. After the necessary introductions they all dashed off together.
Arden and Evénn now came up to the platform at the gates. Turf grew thick upon its roof, and vines hung down on all sides. Seen from above, it would have blended into the ground. When Evénn first arrived here on a sunlit morning some sixty years ago there had been neither vines nor turf, but those were other days. Men did not fear the heavens then. It seemed fitting to him, and grimly amusing, that he came this time amid the gloom of rain and dusk.
At the edge of the platform Raynall, Jalonn, and the others who had heard Jalonn’s report, stood silently waiting for them. Evénn had no doubt he was looking at all seven of the Masters. Their ages varied. The eldest, Raynall, hale into his ninth decade, could have been grandfather to Falimar, the new Master of the Bow, who was six years younger than Arden. The rest were Jalonn’s age or older. Beside him on Raynall’s left were Falimar and Marak, the Master of Hounds. On the other side stood Keral, the Master of Books, then Orom, the Master of Horses, and lastly Indushan, the Master of the Valley, to whose care were entrusted all matters touching upon the safety and provisioning of the Valley.
Reflected in their eyes Evénn saw both kindness and caution, but in different proportions according to their natures. The doubts of several were quite plain. He did not blame them. After all these years his own people might look at him in just this way – welcoming but uncertain, their hopes poised warily against their expectations – if he were to appear suddenly, bearing with him the suggestion of hope. Countless leagues of land and sea, and twenty five years of the sun, divided him from the last of his own people. They were hidden deep in their own final sanctuary, or so he prayed, and they, too, were waiting for a sign.
“Greetings, Evénn, and welcome,” said Master Raynall. “I did not think to see you again in this life.”
“Greetings to you, too, old friend,” Evénn answered with a fading smile. His voice took on a more sober, urgent tone. “I wish we had met sooner. Much has changed with the years, and many things have returned that we did not expect to see.”
“But your return at least is welcome.”
“Masters, the night has gone on too long. I bring a sign,” he said, and hesitated for the right words, “of the coming dawn.”
As he said these words he raised the silk wrapped bundle in his right hand ever so slightly, and subtly shifted his eyes to it, then back to the Masters again. Raynall’s expression scarcely changed, but the elf could see light of speculation, then wonder briefly kindle in his eyes. He stepped forward and extended his hand to his guest, who grasped it quickly and firmly.
“May your words prove true, Evénn,” Raynall said. “Welcome again. I regret that we serve but simple fare here. We can offer no feast to honor you and your ancient deeds as they deserve, but perhaps the past will light the way to the future. “
“It always has,” Evénn answered.
“Just so,” Raynall said. “For now, my friend, we must leave you, but Master Indushan will return presently to escort you to the room we have prepared for you. You will remember it, I think, from your last visit. Arden, son of Tyr, we will await your report in the Council Chamber. No doubt you have much to tell us.”
“That I do, Master,” Arden replied.
As the Masters entered the citadel, Arden noticed Jalonn and Keral exchange a brief look.
“So, Evénn, may I ask what that bundle is now?” Arden said. “The Masters looked at it closely, but their expressions were guarded.”
“Do not keep the Masters waiting, Arden,” Evénn said, chiding his impatience with a kindly smile.
“Very well,” Arden chuckled.
When the Master of the Valley reappeared a moment later, Evénn stepped up onto the platform to greet her and shake her hand before entering the citadel together. Arden lingered briefly, looking back across the rainy valley. Not one of the Rangers present upon their arrival had left yet. They had stayed to observe the meeting of Evénn and the Masters.
“Small wonder,” he thought, and set out for the Council Chamber.