It was nearly three miles across country and around the walls to the West Gate. Even if I had been willing to risk it, the road was now out of the question. So many people were now crowded onto it that they could scarcely move, and I doubted I could even cross it. So, remembering a bridge which carried the road over a small stream not far from the walls, I cut across the fields towards the City. All along the way, I kept my eye out for my father and the men riding with him, but there was no sign of them. I could see no one riding against the crowd.
At last I descended into the stream bed, and began to approach the bridge. In the spring the stream ran swift and strong, fed by the melting snows of the Green Hills just inland, but at this time of year the water was no more than a foot or two deep. Still I had to bend low over the mare’s neck to get through. It was dark and noisy under there. The bridge was groaning with the weight of so many, and the only light came from the shimmer of the sun on the waters. I saw two children and their mother hiding there. The smaller child, a dirty, tiny girl peered at me, and raised her finger to her lips in a gesture of silence. All I could think of when I looked at them were my father’s words to me on the road. I could do nothing for them. I rode on.
Back in the sunlight, I climbed the bank. Narinen rose before me in all its vain strength and beauty. All my life I had admired and loved the City, and on many a fine morning I had traveled there with my father, or brother, or my friends. Until today the sight of the sun upon her white walls and the banners dancing above them in the breeze had never failed to lift up my heart. Those walls were forty feet thick at the base and seventy feet high, topped with round towers and battlements. It had taken over a century to build them and for eighteen hundred years they stood unchallenged. In their ten mile circuit were four gates facing the cardinal points of the compass. The gates themselves were thirty feet tall and twenty wide, made of oak and bound with steel, but hung so perfectly on their hinges that only a few men were needed to shift their great weight, and open or close them. Or so I had been told. For in all my life I had never seen them shut.
From each gate issued a road. Through the North and South Gates they ran to the other towns and cities which lined the coast and drew their life and sustenance from the sea. At the West, or Mountain Gate, the Great Road began its journey across our wide land. After passing through a gap in the Green Hills thirty miles inland, it crossed the Plains of Rheith, then climbed over the Gray Mountains, to end at last at the port of Sufra by the western sea. The East Gate we called the Sea Gate, and from it the road ran for a mile down to our harbor, whence our ships set sail on every tide to explore, to trade, to protect our land. A quarter mile on either side of this road were long walls of stone that protected our link to the harbor, where a forest of masts and spars grew among the wharves and dockyards. Narinen was strong and beautiful to see, and long had it dreamed in peace.
But this morning as I came slanting down towards the Mountain Gate, all the legendary strength and beauty that was Narinen seemed more a myth than the truth I had always known it to be; it seemed nothing but a lie dipped in silver. The South Gate was shut. Steel glittered from the battlements. Four dragons swooped and circled round the City’s proudest towers. A few were already burning. Smoke also rose from the direction of the harbor. The first of the dragons’ ships must be there already, while every moment more rounded the sandy neck which screened the harbor from the south. My heart sank.
I galloped the mare towards the Mountain Gate, which was already half closed. Soldiers stood outside, eager to get in and pull the gates shut behind them, but people were still flowing through them like the tide though an inlet. From the battlements above men called to out me and waved. They gestured frantically towards the last gate.
“The West Gate!” they cried. “The Mountain Gate! Hurry!”
In their voices I could hear joy and desperation. Clearly they had not seen many riding for the City that morning. Their shouting moved along the walls with me as I rode, until finally one of the soldiers outside the gate turned and saw me. He beckoned me impatiently into the gateway just as the last of the mob came out. I passed through the tunnel and stopped.
Across the wide bailey inside the Mountain Gate a barricade of carts and wagons had been hastily improvised, with a single narrow opening at its center. Beyond it, with their backs to me, mounted troops were drawn up, not to keep the enemy out, but our own people in. In the middle of their line the Captain of the Gate sat on his horse, facing the crowd. He answered their clamor with a strong, calm voice, telling them they must stay, that they were safer within the walls. But they would not listen. They insisted on leaving; he insisted they remain. The gates must be shut against the attack which would soon begin. They should take up arms for their land and families and fight, or at least return to their homes.
One burly fellow, whose loud voice carried even above the tumult of the crowd, shouted that they had the right to save themselves, and would not be denied. He called the Captain a fool, and rushed at him with a large hammer. The Captain held his ground, and an arrow appeared in his attacker’s chest, loosed from the guard tower above. The voice of the crowd died with the man. The gates boomed shut and the bolts shot home. The iron portcullis dropped at the inner end of the tunnel with a clang. We were all locked in now.
“Return to your homes now, or go to the walls to fight,” the Captain said gently in the sudden quiet. “Whom shall we fight now in our fear? The dragons, or each other? Shall we do the enemy’s work for him?”
The Captain then backed his horse slowly out of the line of cavalry barring the crowd’s way, and turned away. He had no more to say. Behind him they slowly dispersed, first in reluctant twos or threes around the edges, then in larger numbers. Several dozen volunteered to fight. The Captain looked at me and beckoned.
“Who are you?” he said as I came through the gap in center of the barricade. “We almost shut the gates on you, you know.”
“I am Arden, son of Tyr. I have come to find my father. Do you know where he is?”
“Your father is Tyr, the council member? I see his likeness in you, but he did not come this way. He is probably near the Sea Gate, where the brunt of the battle will be, but there is no time for you to wander about the City looking for him. I need men here, and here you will remain.”
“But me no buts, boy. You are a brave lad to come when so many others have run, but today is the last day of Narinen. You can die here as well as anywhere else. Go see my lieutenant. He will assign you a place.”
The finality with which he spoke admitted no argument. I nodded acquiescence. His lieutenant, almost as brusque, sent me to the walls near the guard towers above the gate. A soldier led my mare away as I climbed the granite steps, and took my place in line at the battlements. The greater part of my new comrades were the ordinary folk of the City – mostly men, some quite old, some lads like me, and the first women I had ever seen in arms – but aside from the men of the West Company who kept this gate I saw few real soldiers.
For until recently our land had been at peace, and almost the whole of our eastern army was gone across the sea. Did anyone imagine we would wake up one morning to find the dragons at our gates? I had not. Even the night before I had believed that the Men of Narinen and the Elves of Talor would prevail; and then our brothers and friends and fathers would come home to us, with tales of glory and the wonders of Elashandra. And if the Council had summoned troops from the west to strengthen the City, my father never told me about it.
Now there was little to do but wait. I glanced at the others around me on the wall-walk. Some stood with their heads bowed low and arms clutched tightly across their chests; others were leaning against the parapet, gaping at the sky with eyes blank and mouths open. The soldiers bore themselves with assurance, but even they, I could see, were not unafraid. Only a few endured this comfortless time with grace. I realized how afraid I was. No help would come. We were alone.
The Captain of the Gate called today the last day of Narinen, just as my father had a little while ago. The size of the armada, the splendor of the dragons in flight, their mastery of the winds, and the cruel fire everywhere in the fields – all this made our destruction seem inevitable, as did the horrible certainty which lurked behind our present dread, that the dragons would not be here now, without any warning, had they not swiftly overwhelmed our armies beyond the sea.
So all I had wished farewell when our army set sail two months ago were dead. My brother, his friends, my friends and their loved ones, Gwinlan and his sons, Cal and Loran’s father, Hedále’s father and brother. Dead. And Hedále and the rest of his family were surely dead now, too. His was the first house I saw in flames. Of Cal and Loran I knew nothing, but the fires had burned brightly within the smoke around their home, which lay close to Gwinlan’s. And where was my father?
“Wake up, boy. Stop your daydreaming,” the lieutenant said, slapping me hard on the back as he passed. “We need your mind here with the rest of you.”
“Sorry, sir,” I said and straightened up.
Someone laughed. A very old man was standing next to me. In his hands was a tall, ashen spear, its iron head tipped in rust, which he leaned on like the staff he should have held. He grinned at me.
“It doesn’t bear thinking about, my lad,” he said.
“The ending of the world. That’s what this is. Aléthen, the old king, Stochas’ father, was a seer, you know. He saw that a day would come when this City would perish, and all our folk with it. He did, you know.”
“Yes. My father taught me that, but I never thought I’d live to see it.”
“Nor I, young man. And I did not think to wield this again,” he said, gazing at the spear as if it held all the strength and memories of his youth. “It’s been fifty years since we broke the gates of Irayan, and we’re both a bit rusty now, but we’ll have to do.”
He was about to say more when a shadow rushed over us from behind. Now the golden dragon dropped down before our eyes, and swept away from the walls and gate and off along the western road. Not far off, not far enough, the last of those who escaped from the City were straggling out of sight into the smoke. Before they knew it, or we could cry a vain warning, the dragon plunged in behind them. A searing line of fire lit the cloud from within, burning true to the road’s plumb straight course. It was all we could see, and all we needed to, but the screams of dying thousands robbed us of our voice. We stared into the unseen distance, mute, unseeing, unable even to look at each other. It was no different elsewhere. Flame traced all roads, west, north, and south. We could only listen. Until it ended.
Then the golden dragon burst from the wall of smoke, and flew with increasing speed back up the road towards the Mountain Gate. Many of us just kept staring, others dissolved in fear, their limbs shaking. None of us moved. Suddenly the dragon pulled up sharply.
“Down, down, everybody down,” I could hear the Captain and the lieutenant crying.
I threw myself face down on the hard stone and rolled up against the battlements, drawing my knees against my chest and covering my head. But not all were so quick. The blast from the dragon’s jaws struck the gates like a storm wave hitting a breakwater. The walls shuddered beneath me, as the flames rolled up and over the battlements, passing close above me. I covered my mouth and held my breath, trying not to inhale the scorched air. When the walls finally stopped trembling, I opened my eyes and rolled away from the wall. The dragon was now past us, sailing above the rooftops towards the center of the City, idly setting buildings on fire along the way. I could see the other three doing the same, converging on the heart of Narinen.
Around me men and women were screaming, some burning, some with their skin charred black. The old man lay dead. Figures constantly appeared and disappeared through the black smoke. A few of us tried to help the wounded, struggling to put out the flames. Some crawled on their hands and knees, retching from the stench and the terror. Others were running away, down the steps and into the City. One man leaped to his death over the battlements. Many just shrank back and cowered. We all wept. I still remember the sharp taste of salt in my mouth.
The Captain of the Gate, however, came sweeping down the parapet, a pair of sergeants behind him. The lieutenant was not to be seen. The Captain had words of encouragement for all he passed: raising men up from the still warm stones on which they sat or crouched; commending us for withstanding the first assault; checking the wounded and assigning men to carry them – and the dead – away; giving orders to others to fetch bandages and water; bidding us to resume our posts. Our eyes met. He clapped me on the shoulder, gave me a good word and a smile. But despite his brave and resolute manner, his face was grim and his eyes empty of hope. I thought of the words of the king, of which the old man had only just reminded me: our day had come.
And still it was not noon. The dragons returned again and again, but none could predict their coming. Five minutes or a reluctant hour might pass between attacks, and it was never the same dragon twice in a row. Though the gates and walls withstood the flames, their defenders did not. It was hardest on the ordinary folk, many of whom died in the first attacks. Unlike the soldiers, they were too slow to obey the Captain’s orders. Some volunteered to help carry away the dead and wounded, and never returned. By the middle of the afternoon very few of us remained on the walls, and a sergeant now escorted anyone who left them.
Then the dragons turned their minds from us to our City, and a rain of fire began. We became spectators again, impotent witnesses to a new horror. Within an hour all of Narinen was one mighty conflagration. Above the heavens were clothed in a low, dark pall, supported by columns of smoke tinged red by the savage light. Below ash drifted like snow, choking us and soiling everything it touched. Worst of all was the roar of the flames, so loud that it silenced our world. The wounded and dying still screamed, the broken sobbed in terror, the Captain shouted orders, but all without voice. Even when by some caprice of the wind the air cleared enough for us to glimpse the center of the City, and we saw a building we knew totter and fall, no sound of its collapse reached us. When the smoke swirled in again like a curtain closing on a scene, we wondered if any of it was real. The soft, summer rain that started falling an hour before sunset availed little against the flames; and the rain itself, black and greasy from the soot in the air, only drenched us in filth and weighed down our guttering spirits.
Someone grasped me by the arm and shook me. It was the Captain. He pointed out across the fields, and leaning close, shouted in my ear. Even so I could barely hear him saying that the enemy’s forces were in motion. As I turned to look, I could see others along the wall behind him gazing outward in the direction he pointed. The Captain had been working his way down the parapet, telling each of us in turn. Outside in the distance I could just discern in the firelight a large body of men, several thousand strong close to the Mountain Gate, but still out of bowshot. Then I gazed south and glimpsed the widespread glitter of flames on steel, no doubt another similar detachment beyond the South Gate. They had no battering rams or siege engines that I could see, and that morning I would have said that even with our depleted numbers we could have kept them out. For the fire had scorched but not destroyed the gates. They were still strong. But today I had seen sights I could not have imagined the day before. Nothing seemed beyond the power of the dragons.
The attack would come soon, the Captain cried in my ear. We must hold this gate to protect the rear and flanks of the other three. The main attack would surely fall upon the Sea Gate. That was where the bulk of the enemy was mustering. We must hold them back, make them pay, take our vengeance. He asked me if I understood, and I nodded. We all understood. We tightened our grip on our weapons and prepared ourselves. He clapped me on the shoulder, and moved on to the next man. I wondered where my father was. Did he still live? Was he even now giving the same orders as my Captains was to other young men as frightened as I was.
Then the enemy began moving, marching slowly in a long column towards the gate. Soon they were nearly within bowshot and what few archers we had on the walls took their bows from beneath their cloaks, where they had tried to shield their bowstrings from the rain. As the enemy came on, the archers kept bending their bows to wring any water from the strings. Finally they notched their arrows, raised their bows, and began shooting. Arrows also flew from the guard towers, far more than I would have guessed. The front ranks of the enemy thinned as men fell, but others moved up to fill their places, stepping over their fallen comrades. More fell the closer they came, but still they kept coming.
Without warning the black dragon plummeted from the darkness to land on top of the nearer tower. His lashing tail and claws quickly cleared the platform of living men. Then he leaped the fifty feet to the farther tower and began killing once more. A second dragon appeared, the red one I had seen that morning. As before he flew in low over the road and straight at the gates, but now with much greater speed. He passed directly over the heads of his advancing soldiers, and once he did they broke into a run. I thought he would fly headlong into the gates, but at the last instant he rose up slightly, spread his wings to break his momentum, and drawing his hind legs up before him, he crashed feet first into the gates of oak and steel. They splintered at the impact. The iron hinges were wrenched from the stone pillars which held them. Masonry collapsed around the entrance. The dragon beat his wings forwards, rose up and was gone. The way into Narinen was almost open.
The column of men surged ahead. They charged through the shattered gates and into the tunnel. Yet the portcullis at its far end barred their way. Led by the Captain we hurried down the stairs into the bailey. There we took up positions behind the barricade, which only that morning our soldiers had made to keep people in. From here we could shoot at the enemy and choke the near end of the tunnel with their dead, while they struggled to raise or break through the portcullis.
But again we had reckoned without the dragons. For the black one still crouched motionless atop the further tower, his wings furled, his long tail wrapped around his forefeet, like some gigantic cat serenely waiting to pounce on his sport. Serene but intent, he watched us from above. The flames of Narinen were mirrored in his scales. One by one we felt his black eyes upon us, and we trembled at his attention, knowing that our death smoldered in the furnace within him. Then he threw back his head, and loosed a cry that pierced even the din of an entire city in flames. Beginning as a low growl, it soared upward to end in a shriek of cruelty and triumph.
But in his malice he did not destroy us as he might have done. He sprang from his perch down into the bailey. With one talon he grasped the portcullis, wrenched it from its moorings, and tossed it lightly away. For a moment he let his gaze linger on us before turning to consider his own men. He seemed pleased as he hurled himself aloft into the night. I understood then that the dragon’s malice and his pleasure were one: though he could have slain us in an instant and cleared the way for his own soldiers, he preferred that we battle each other on a field of blood.
The instant the dragon was gone, his men burst like a torrent from the end of the tunnel; some of our people, even the soldiers, broke and ran. The sergeants behind our line wielded their pikes, forcing as many as they could back into line at the barricade, but more were fleeing than they could stop. Then the enemy was upon us. At first we held them back, thrusting over and through the barricade with pikes and spears, slashing and stabbing with our swords at those who tried to climb over it. But no matter how many of them died, more came flooding through the tunnel every second; and within a few minutes their numbers and their mass pressing upon the barrier began to tell. The barricade itself began to be slowly shoved backwards and we could only give ground with it. But, oh, we made them pay for every inch they gained. We slew so many that their bodies formed a ramp for their comrades to use.
Until now the advantage had been ours to strike at them as we willed, while they had to expose themselves in order to attack us. Far more of them had fallen so far. Yet soon they began to break through our makeshift walls off to my left and to drive our men backwards. The balance had shifted. We would soon be overwhelmed if we stood our ground. I hurried to the center of our line and grabbed my Captain by the shoulder. He looked at me. I pointed down the line to the breach. He took it all in at once, then in a voice louder than any I have ever heard, a voice that carried over the violence of fire and battle, he cried out for us to fall back. Men looked to him, surprised. Several times he repeated the call and those who could obeyed, running for the opening of the street behind us at the inner wall of the bailey. Three of our sergeants were already there, pikes in hand, and they pushed and shoved the men into formation. Those who could not break away from the struggle at the barrier bought the rest of us time to form up. Many of our staunchest soldiers died there, swiftly outnumbered by the enemy who swarmed up and over our abandoned defenses. Without them we would have all perished there and then.
As we fell back, enemy soldiers broke through one by one and came rushing after us. Our Captain turned to meet them. Several of us tried to go to his aid, but the sergeants wouldn’t allow it. They seized us from behind and dragged us back, shoving us into our place in the ranks. The Captain had no need of our help. Alone before our line, like some hero, he cut down each of his opponents in turn. Then he stood there, just waiting for the rest of the enemy.
A moment later they all came. Their mouths were open and their eyes blazing as they shouted their battle cry. I could not hear it, but seeing them, I felt how raw my own throat was. I was screaming, too. When their front rank collided with ours, the immense weight of their numbers thrust us back on our heels, and compelled us to withdraw step by step.
For the moment we had one thing in our favor. Only one street led from the outer bailey into the City, and it was but twenty five feet wide. Thus, though our numbers could not match the enemy’s, we could fill this narrow place entirely. They could not get around us or outflank us as they could in the bailey. But with every step we retreated, we came closer to the first cross street sixty yards behind us, a broad avenue more than twice as wide as the street we were on. Even if we held out that long, at the crossroads they would overwhelm us at once. We had too few men and no hope of more.
We all knew all this fact, I’m sure, though I don’t remember thinking so at the time. Yet our ferocity with the enemy at our throats and our deaths imminent bore witness to our sense of it. We fought until our swords broke and our spears splintered. We fought with daggers and fists and teeth after that. We pulled the swords of our foes from our comrades’ bodies and turned them on their owners. And always before us stood the Captain. No single foe who assailed him long survived. Three or more would leap at him, and he drew his dagger and fought them two handed. You could see they feared him, and only the weight of the men pressing them from behind forward kept them from hanging back.
Yet for all our ardor and all we slew, there were always more of the dragons’ men. The more ground they took, the hotter the battle became. For we felt the open spaces of the crossroads like an abyss at our backs, into which we would soon fall forever. My eyes stung with sweat and the fine, salt spray of blood that saturated the air. The smoke was thick and heavy in my throat. At some lost hour the sun had set, leaving only the fires surrounding us to shed any light. Our ranks thinned. Men fell on every side. How did I not stumble over their bodies when I stepped on them, or lose my footing on the slick cobblestones? How was I never wounded?
At last out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a sign hanging above a doorway just to my right. On it was painted a lamp with a warm, welcoming glow. We were outside the oil merchant’s shop, which stood two doors in from the corner. I’d known it all my life, but I didn’t have time to think about the fire and smoke I saw rolling out of its upper windows, or the smaller fires visible inside through the windows on the street. I had no time at all. This was it. We were here. Maybe three dozen of us were still alive. We kept fighting, but it was all about to end. I resolved that if I was going to die, I would do so by my Captain’s side, and I tried to fight my way closer to him.
But before I could reach him, the barrels of oil within the shop grew so hot they exploded. Driven by the force of that blast, glass from the windows sped through the air, followed by a rolling wall of flame. Friend and foe alike were cut down. Like the dragons, the fire made no distinction between us. It was my fortune that a half dozen men were then between me and the explosion. This saved my life. For their bodies shielded me from the glass and took the brunt of the force, which hurled them into me and us all across the street, smashing me into the door of the shop opposite the oil merchant’s. I was stunned by the impact and buried in the bodies and debris which fell over us all.
I lay there for several minutes, surprised to be alive, able to hear nothing but the roar of the flames, to feel nothing but the weight upon me and the roasting warmth of the oil fed fires. I struggled to free myself from beneath the pile, and in time I wriggled free and sat up. I was sitting inside the doorway of the shop on top of its door. It had given way when we hit it. This again was my fortune. For as I looked through the doorway into the street outside, I discovered that with the explosion of the oil the entire shop, and much of the building next to it, had collapsed, filling the street with rubble and flames.
I remember smiling to myself to think that the fire blocked the path of the dragon’s men into the City. But I rued that thought as soon as I saw that no one but me had survived. The few bodies I could see burned or smoldered. Here and there an arm or leg or hand was thrust up or out of the rubble. Nothing but the fire moved. It was the only living thing before me. Every man and woman I had stood and fought beside, every enemy that stood against us and sought our lives, lay dead in that street in the ruins of that building. My Captain, too, lay there, I thought. His courage had sustained us throughout the day and into the night, and if I lived still, my life was owed to him. Without him, no one would have been at the gates to hold the enemy back until the building fell and gave us one small victory that day.
I did not and do not know his name, but the sword I bear is his. I found it right outside the shop door. The sword I had been wielding, seized from the dead hand of an enemy, was lost in the blast. When I ventured out to look for it, I found instead my Captain’s sword, standing hilt upright in a pile of smoking rubble. The blade and hilt were clotted with blood, but in the pommel at the hilt’s end, was set a green jewel, whose polished facets caught every spark and flicker of the blaze. I remembered seeing his hand rest upon that hilt as he had faced down the unruly crowd that morning, an age and more ago. With no weapon of my own, I took his sword and begged his pardon. I had need of it and he had none.
In the street I saw that the fire and fallen building had also cut me off from the rest of the City. More of the building crashed down while I stood there, forcing me to retreat into the shop behind me. Knowing that every shop has a back or side door, a place for carts to be loaded and unloaded, I began searching. In a kitchen at the back I came upon some jugs of water and at once realized how parched my throat and lips were. I drank again and again; and when I was done poured that blessed water over my head, rinsing off some of the sweat and blood and soot, washing off the gore that covered my hands. Then I slipped out the back door into an alley parallel to the street we had been defending.
At the alley’s end was the cross street we had fought so hard to keep the dragons’ men from reaching. It was broad and empty. There was no sign of fighting. The thought came to me as I looked down that street that I had no idea what to do next. Doubtless fighting raged across the City. The other gates had surely been breached by the dragons just as ours had been. At the Sea Gate, directly across the City from the Mountain Gate, our men had been facing the main force of the enemy, so my captain had said, and they would have been lucky not to be attacked from behind if the North and South Gates had fallen. Though my father was on the Council, he had of course never told me of any plans there might have been for defending our City. Its walls had never before been breached, and we had been at peace for more than two generations. All I wanted to do now was to find my father. So I had to cross the City to the Sea Gate and head for the thick of the battle.
The quickest route was to travel along the street we had been defending, which ran between the Mountain and Sea Gates. At the corner I looked back westward at the fallen building. No danger could come from that direction for some time. But the path before me was walled with fire and the smoke obscured my vision. It would be all too easy to stumble upon an enemy that had overwhelmed the defenders of the other gates and penetrated the City. The further I went, the more likely I was to meet an enemy. But it was all I could do. I gripped the Captain’s sword more tightly and began running east. At every street I stopped to peer around every corner, trying to see the enemy before he could see me. I kept close to the buildings where I could, guessing that anyone else in the streets would likely do the opposite, to avoid the flames. The closer I drew to the center of the City, the worse the fire and smoke became. Before long I found I could no longer run. Breathing the smoke made my head light and my lungs ache. And the passion of the battle at the gate had left me. I began to realize how hungry and weary I was. Breakfast with my father that morning took place in a different world. And I was no longer the boy with all the books, who did not know where to find his sword.
The dead were everywhere: vile, charred bodies, still smoking; crushed bodies, half buried in the collapse of buildings; bodies maimed by steel or broken in leaps of despair; bodies of children robbed of time. It is their empty faces that crowd my thoughts now, but the streets were not as deserted of living souls as memory makes them seem.
Outside a tavern I saw a small group of soldiers and townsmen, drunk, staggering about together and singing with grand gestures, or slumped quite unconscious against the building. The tavern door had been forced open. Two doors down a group of looters, not even soldiers of the enemy, eyed me suspiciously as I passed by. Halfway to the center of the City, I paused to watch two men, both my father’s age, dueling in the courtyard of a burning house, determined to settle a long cherished grudge before the dragons cheated them of their last opportunity.
Figures stepped unexpectedly out of the swirling darkness right in front of me, hurrying, always hurrying somewhere, and eager to be gone. We’d hesitate, then dart past each other without ever looking back. Once I nearly killed a woman who appeared from a dark doorway right in front of me. Startled, I raised my sword. She shrank back, clutched her child to her breast, and vanished back into the gloom within. I was hurrying, too.
In the last, long block before the great square at the heart of our City I took two of the dragons’ men by surprise. They were on their knees stripping the corpses of soldiers of ours whom they and their comrades had killed. Scores of dead men from both sides lay from one end of the street to the other, some still grappling with each other or gripping broken swords. These two were the only survivors. I cut them down before either of them saw me coming.
Fearing that more soldiers of the enemy were nearby, I concealed myself among the corpses, pretending for a time to be dead myself, while I peered across at the square. It was a half mile across, and the most important buildings our people lined the street that ran around it. On the north rose the ancient Hall of Kings with its two elegant towers of stone; on the south was the Hall of Counsel where my father spent many of his days in debate with the other elders and officials of the City and Land of Narinen; to the east, beside the Hall of Equity, stood the Houses of the Republic, which men still called the King’s Museum and the King’s Library; to the west, on either side of me, were the College of Healers and the King’s School where many of the men and women who guided our Republic had studied.
In those days the streets that ran from the gates entered the square through huge arches, fifty feet tall, placed in the middle of each side. Beyond them the streets became gravel walks bordered by cool, green lawns beneath the trees, which were planted throughout the square, from the arches to the fountains at the corner entrances, and inward along the paths to the circle, itself a quarter of a mile across, which occupied the center of the square. An open colonnade of white marble was built along the perimeter of the circle. Benches sat between its columns, and tall plane trees stretched their boughs over its roof, furnishing a shady place to rest on a hot summer day. Gray octagonal blocks paved the open area between the colonnade and the fountain at its center.
But tonight, as I rose to cross street, flames were pouring upward from the windows of almost every building, blackening their white facades with soot and smoke. All along the side of the square closest to me, the trees were down and smoldering. Along the north side one of the towers of the Hall of Kings was broken. And perched calmly atop that tower was the red dragon wreathed in flame. I ducked into the shadows beneath the arch when I saw him, but his attention was elsewhere. He was watching something directly across the square from me, something which the blowing smoke and the stoa and fountain in the square’s center kept from my view.
By now I had seen him many times today, but he was even more fearsome at this hour than he had been when I met him face to face in the morning light. For fire, darkness, and destruction were his element, and I was alone. Though still and silent on the distant tower, he seemed more alive and menacing. Yet the way to the Sea Gate and my father lay across the square. I swallowed my fear and left the dubious shelter of the arch. I forced myself to run for the fountain, my lungs aching from the smoke that felt thicker with every stride I took. I managed to make my way – unobserved or disregarded – to the central fountain. It still ran despite the destruction surrounding it, but the water was black and oily. Concealed behind the rim of the fountain’s basin, I crawled slowly around the south side, trying to keep out of sight. Halfway around I discovered what held the red dragon’s eye.