Once she had watched Arden go, Agarwen turned to Niall.
“Well, Niall,” she said, “Arden’s desire to try the dragons again may come to something at last, if that is truly the dragonslayer.”
“Why do you doubt it, Agarwen?” Niall answered.
“I always thought elves had pointed ears,” she said sheepishly.
Niall burst out laughing.
“Who in the world told you that?” he said at last.
“The Master says many things to young Rangers,” he said, laughing again. “Not all are to be taken, shall we say, at face value. It is his way of testing their humor, and their innocence.”
“Well,” said Agarwen, abashed, “he has always said that in a world of tears we must laugh. Else our hearts will break.”
“Do not blush, Agarwen. Just enjoy the joke. You’re not the only one who believed him. I was there many years ago in his study when he told Arden and some others, myself included, the same thing.”
“Did you believe him?”
“For a moment, yes, but then I saw the light in his eyes and knew he was jesting.”
“He believed him, though he has clearly learned better since. In his youth his eyes were always cast down. He did not look Master Raynall – who was then still Master of Swords – in the eye, except on the fencing floor, and so he did not see. In those days he was still so wounded from the Fall that there was much he did not, or would not, see for fear of suffering more.”
“It’s strange that one so bitter was also so credulous. That is usually not their way.”
“At first,” Niall began, then stopped to consider his answer. “At first he was shattered, reckless in anger, helpless with grief. The bitterness grew as he refused to heal.”
“Oh, it’s a hard thing to put into words,” Niall said, shaking his head, “and perhaps I have chosen the wrong ones to describe it. Some griefs cannot be overcome, Agarwen. Time stops, and a part of us, large or small, stops with it. The Fall of the City is the scar of Arden’s heart. Time stopped for him that day, but the darkness was already gathering.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“You will learn that later tonight, I think, when the Masters have him tell the story of the Fall. Listen closely, and you will learn much of Arden.”
She studied his face uneasily, wondering what he meant.
“Why do you think the Masters will ask him to tell it?” she said.
“Because with the return of Evénn our time of waiting is at an end. It will be right to tell the tale. Arden has not done so in many years, not since you were a child.”
“I remember that night,” Agarwen said with a grin. “I crept into the hall to listen. I thought I had hidden myself well until Jalonn dragged me out by the ear, and sent me home.”
“Really, you sneaked in? I didn’t know that.”
“Yes. The Master was not pleased, but said he understood my curiosity. He also said as he twisted my ear that, if I wished to become a Ranger, I had better learn to conceal myself more cleverly.”
“What did you get to hear?”
“Not much, and all of it very sad. Arden told the tale well, but clearly he found no joy in it.”
“No one would.”
“Then tonight you shall know.”
“I hope so,” she said. “And I hope the coming of Evénn will help him as much as the rest of us.”
“That I hope as well,” said Niall. “Now, I must attend to my duties and see my family before the evening meal. I’ll meet you at the hall, Agarwen.”
With that they parted, each pondering what they had heard and what might come of it. A rainy night fell as they left, the last of the Rangers to do so.
Two hours later, as always at the beginning of the third hour past sunset, the Rangers gathered for their evening meal, to commemorate the hour at which Stochas, the last king, put off his crown and proclaimed the Republic. Also as always it was simple fare, dark loaves of bread and a thick brown stew, with water to drink and baskets piled high with apples for after supper. The routine of a thousand years was not easily disrupted. For, despite the great news that the dragonslayer had returned, the older Rangers were too sober, too schooled in patience under darkness to let their expectations be more than guarded; and if their example alone was not enough to check the more exuberant spirits of their younger brothers and sisters, sharp words reminded them that success would be achieved only through further loss, and at the risk of all they had left.
This was a lesson they all knew by heart. The dragonslayer’s songs and the other tales of the past on which they had been reared taught them as much, even if they also spoke of hope against evil. No victory in those tales came without cost, a truth often lost on the young who saw death for a cause as glory. The dour facts of their defeat and of a generation spent in the shadows, struggling merely to survive, brought this lesson home as no song ever could. So the low hum of conversation throughout the meal signaled not only their hopes and fears, but also their efforts to repress them and wait until they knew what the dragonslayer would say. Patience alone had kept them alive to see this day. High spirits could find voice later, when the bloodshed was done.
Evénn accepted Indushan’s invitation to sit at the head of the Master of the Valley’s table that evening with the other Masters, in the traditional place kept for all visitors, no matter how high or low their station. Kings had sat there, and leaders of the Republic after them; there, too, any messenger or other guest. At Indushan’s table, with Arden and Evénn seated on either side of her, no word was said of dragons or war, of hope or of despair. Yet every conversation held outside the Masters’ hearing touched on the coming of the dragonslayer; and every man and woman who did not take a long look his way at least stole a glance.
Many reserved their most careful attention for the Masters themselves, to see if by observing their manner towards Evénn they might guess their mind. As the older Rangers predicted, this scrutiny was unavailing. To be read like a book, they warned, even by the closest reader, was not the mark of a Master of Rangers. Nothing seemed different, yet everything was. But when one of the Guardians reported what Jalonn had said the morning before – that the time had come – the word spread through the hall like fire across a parched field. Then the Rangers old enough to remember their old defeats and the days before the Fall grew even quieter, and looked at each other with eyes that spoke what their lips would not.
As they ate and talked of such matters in low voices, they sat around a dozen long tables of black oak. Nearby against the walls stood large sideboards from which the youngest apprentices served their elders. Eight of these tables were reserved for the Rangers, male and female alike, while their husbands and wives dined at the rest. Once the number of spouses who lived in the Valley had been small. For only a few score Rangers dwelt there permanently, but in the first years after the Fall the Valley became as much a refuge as a citadel. The children of those days grew up, married, had children of their own. What for quiet centuries had been the stronghold of a warrior brotherhood was now a fortified town, swelling with the young and their passions. So many could not remain hidden, or be fed, forever.
In the center of the hall a large four sided hearth provided heat and light. Lamps of polished brass hung above each table. On either side of the tall double doors in the middle of each wall tapestries illustrated the deeds of the unforgotten dead. Yet they portrayed more than just the martial exploits of Rangers. The many discoveries of scholars and explorers were represented as well as the victories of bloodless persuasion that had strengthened a peace or forestalled a war. There was Narin, the ancient navigator who had discovered this wide land, and there Aléthen, the seer king, commanding his son to establish the library housed here. Above the tapestries on every wall, higher perhaps but less well lit, hung the battle honors won by the Rangers over the centuries.
At one end of the hall was a dais raised two steps above the floor, and on it a table sitting crosswise to all the others. Every night two apprentices set the table for a meal; they stood ready to serve, but were never called upon. No one sat there. In all the years of the Rangers no one ever had. It was kept to honor those who did not return. But if one of their shades found his way home, a single glass of wine, red as the blood he shed, waited there to welcome him and quench his long thirst. Legend had it that more than once the untouched glass had been found empty at the end of the night.
On the wall behind the dais hung two tapestries woven even more skillfully than the rest. The first depicted the last king’s abdication: his crown was placed on the table beside him; his right hand was over his heart, and his face was turned away. The second portrayed the same table: the crown still sat upon it, but surrounded by the books of the laws that now ruled the land; and on either side stood the first two men elected to govern the Republic. Until the day of the dragons the table depicted here had rested atop the Speaker’s Platform in the Hall of Counsel in the City of Narinen. While over the centuries many a council member had laid his hand on the books of law as he addressed the Council, none dared touch the crown. It lay where Stochas had put it.
By immemorial custom all those not on duty, even Rangers as solitary as Arden, ate together each night in the Hall of Feasts. After delivering his report, he had accompanied the Masters here to meet Evénn. Throughout the meal the Masters and other Rangers at Indushan’s table questioned them further about the encounter with the dragon’s men at Kinabra. They asked them about the troopers’ strength, tactics, and proficiency with weapons; they asked about the people of Kinabra, the conditions in which they lived, and their reactions to a Ranger among them. They attend closely to every answer. When some recounted similar experiences of their own, Arden and Evénn questioned them in turn. Marak, the Master of Hounds, was familiar with Kinabra, and remembered the captain and the blacksmith as children. Their father had also been a smith, and had an honest reputation.
When their meal was over, Master Raynall stood up and climbed the steps of the dais. The room became quiet.
“You all know of the guest among us,” he said. “After all it is hard to keep a secret from Rangers. I have heard many of you speaking of why he is here. We shall not discuss that tonight. Tomorrow the Council will meet to consider the news he and Arden bring. Afterwards, as is proper, we shall inform you all.
“Tonight, however, since Arden is one of the few still living who witnessed the Fall of our City, I shall ask him to tell us that tale. I know it is a memory of pain for him, yet if we are to begin anew” – at this many exchanged looks of surprise – “we must first recall what was lost. There are also young ones here who have never heard the tale. Let them know the sorrow of our times. Arden, will you speak?”
Arden rose from his seat, reluctantly. It was not that he wished to forget those events. He could not. He did not. They ran constantly through his mind, but speaking them aloud summoned all the grief and horror of that day. The past was no longer past, nor memory memory. To those who dwell there unhealed, the past is a shroud. In telling the tale, the shroud was rent.