. Alas, not me: December 2014

07 December 2014

The Fulcrum of Dreams -- Chapter 3.2

Four hours later Rafenor returned. He was met at the door by Argos and the wolf who looked at him curiously, then went back to lie in the shade beneath the porch. Arden, Agarwen, and Niall were all practicing silent duels in which they uttered no sound themselves nor allowed their swords to cross. The walls of the house of the storyteller were high and thick, but not so much as to keep the clash of swords from carrying into the street beyond. As Rafenor could readily see, it took the most precise control for them to fence at full speed, but stop their blades the instant before they touched. He had met and spoken to Rangers before over the years, but never had he seen their skills displayed. Amid the hot, still air of the early afternoon, their movements seemed almost dreamlike. It was in fact a sight he found quite beautiful to see.
Before them Jalonn stood examining their form and quietly making suggestions. Evénn still sat upon his bench beneath the roses, but he was looking at Rafenor now. When their eyes met, he stood and approached him. Rafenor met him halfway, yet noticed that the Rangers did not pause in their exercise or look at him. Given how eager they must be for the news he brought, he found their discipline admirable.
“What news?” Evénn asked him in a calm voice.
“I have prevailed upon the rebels to admit that the Rangers are with them, but they won’t say much else. They’re being exceptionally close about the whole thing, which is odd.”
“Yes. I am one of the few they trust down here. My brother and I have done them a favor or two. So usually they are more open with us, but all my brother could get out of them before I arrived were suspicious looks and denials that they knew about any Rangers in Inshanar. He thinks something has frightened them badly, and I agree.”
“From what you say, they seem quite anxious,” Evénn said. “Were you able to learn anything more when you spoke to them yourself?”
“Two things. First they know that five dragon’s men entered the city last night, in two parties, the first of two soldiers and a dog, the second of three soldiers with a wolf, and that they were looking for the two Rangers. They seemed to find the presence of a dog very interesting.”
“And well they might,” said Evénn slowly, weighing Rafenor’s words. “But what is the second thing you learned?”
“They are looking for you.”
“For us?” Evénn said, raising his eyebrows. “For us? No one should know we are here. We have avoided all contact with others, especially Rangers, since we left Narinen.”
“What do you make of it?”
“I don’t know what to say,” he said thoughtfully, and paused to consider what he knew. Ever since they had heard of the destruction of Narinen, they had stayed out of sight as much as they could. They journeyed only by night and kept to the woods at the foot of the Green Hills. After arriving outside Inshanar almost four weeks ago, they had hidden during the day. They had spoken to no one at all. Then last night those two Rangers had suddenly appeared, riding with reckless speed for the port, and he and the others had decided to follow them into the city. Who were they? Why were they seeking them? How did they know where to find them?
“Obviously Rangers or someone in touch with them saw us on our way here, and recognized at least one of us,” he said and then turned and called out. “Jalonn, there is news.”
Without looking at him, Jalonn raised his hand. The practice stopped. Rafenor and Evénn began walking towards the porch, and Rafenor beckoned the Rangers to join them there.
“Is there any news of my ship?” Evénn asked as they neared the porch.
“A ship was seen hull down on the horizon an hour ago. The sails are right for her to be the packet, but with the wind as it is, she likely won’t arrive before morning.”
“Then I must go have a look,” he said and turned to the others. “Rafenor has found the Rangers for us. He will tell you what he knows, while I go look for my ship. It’s possible she’s almost here.”
Evénn picked up his sword from where he had propped it against the railing of the porch, and headed for the gate. At a wave from him, the wolf left his shady spot and followed him out into the street. Left alone with the Rangers, Rafenor began his tale again. Questioned by them more thoroughly than by Evénn, his opinion of them continued to rise. In this matter they were as attentive to detail as they had been in their sword drill. Little wonder, he thought, that these men and women had survived thirty years under the red dragon’s sway when all others who tried to resist had been crushed quickly and finally; and that now, as the red dragon lay dead on the shore outside Narinen, small bands of Rangers had been able to inflict such terrible harm on the enemy despite the presence of the other three dragons.
When Rafenor was done, Arden said, to himself if no one else, “I knew we were right to follow them here.”
“Yes,” Agarwen replied, “whatever their news is, it must be important indeed for them to risk coming here so openly. What do you think, Jalonn?”
“Either they are fools or their news is worth endangering everything,” he answered as he looked at the table and stroked his chin.
“Or maybe only fools would be foolish enough to run this risk,” Niall said. “Their chances of reaching here alive by the road were slim, and they rode their horses nearly to death.”
“Clearly they thought delivering their message was worth dying for,” Rafenor put in.
“It must have to do with the dragons,” said Arden.
“Yes, that’s it,” Jalonn looked up and answered. “Only information about the dragons themselves would matter so much.”
Just then the door opened and Torran walked into the garden. He came straight up to them, glancing around as he did. Arden knew he was looking for Mirah.
“They want a meeting,” he said without delay.
“The rebels or the Rangers?” Jalonn asked, requiring more precision of the young man.
“The rebels say the Rangers do,” Torran answered, slyly amused at his reply.
“Why?” said Jalonn.
“They – the Rangers – ” he said, a grin flickering across his face, “want to be sure they’re not walking into a trap. They want to see someone they know.”
“That they wouldn’t say. They just said to make sure it was someone any Ranger would know.”
“That would be me,” Jalonn said and leaned back, studying the young man’s face.
“They also insisted that it was to be that one alone, and no one else: no dog, no wolf, no horse, and no one following. They said the Rangers would be watching the one who came, and would kill him if their requirements were not met.”
“I don’t like that at all,” Agarwen said slowly, stressing each word. “You could be walking into a trap yourself.”
“Nor do I,” Niall agreed. “She’s right, Jalonn.”
“Yes, it could be a trap,” he replied. “There could be no Rangers. It could be that the rebels think they’ll catch a soldier of the dragon. It could also be a test. If no one comes, they will know we are not who we claim to be. If we do not honor their terms, they’ll know we don’t trust them, and will be less likely to trust us even if the threat is a bluff. What do you think, Torran?”
As Rafenor’s brother considered his response under Jalonn’s steady gaze, Agarwen looked at the swordmaster in surprise. He was not known for asking the young their opinion. She saw Niall grinning. Arden was looking at the young man as well, but there was laughter in his eyes, when he briefly shifted his gaze to meet hers.
“Well,” began Torran, “as my brother has likely told you, the rebels are very frightened of something. We don’t know what it is, but their fear alone suggests that they are just being very careful and that this is no trap. I would go.”
“Very good,” Jalonn responded. “And so shall I.”
“Master Jalonn, no,” Arden said, and immediately realized his error in calling Jalonn ‘master’ before others. For out of the corner of his eye he caught an intrigued look on the storyteller’s face and saw him silently mouthing the word to himself.
“No?” Jalonn said very quietly, without even looking at Arden.
“No,” Arden repeated. “Let me go, or Niall. We are both old enough for any Ranger likely to be entrusted with such a message to know us. It is too dangerous.”
“More dangerous than slaying dragons, Arden?” Jalonn said with a brief laugh. “I think not. I shall go.”
The tone of his voice told them all that further argument was useless. He had spoken with the finality and conviction in his voice of a Master giving an order. They could not disobey. To Rafenor and his brother, who watched this exchange with interest, Jalonn said:
“Did we learn the names of the Rangers by any chance?”
“No, that they wouldn’t tell us,” Torran replied, his brother nodding in agreement.
“What about the names of the rebels we are dealing with?”
“The one we were both speaking to is called Aldas, a cousin of ours,” the young man said. “He has some say among the rebels.”
“Good. They’re expecting an answer, I gather?”
“They await my return.”
“Then tell them that the Master of Swords will meet the Rangers. Whoever they are, I think they’ll remember me. But, tell that only to your cousin, Aldas, and tell him to tell only the two Rangers. If he will not agree to that, then they will have to come to us, under the same terms.”
“I understand, Master Jalonn,” Torran said and headed for the gate.
As he went out, he passed Evénn and the wolf on the way in. Both were looking cheerful.
“What news, Evénn?” Agarwen called out to him. “You look like you’ve found your ship.”
“I believe I have,” he said with a smile and a look of relief as he came up the porch steps. The others sat up.
“There is a ship in the offing,” he continued. “Three masts, square-rigged. She looks much like the Spindrift, but with barely more than her sails above the horizon, it is impossible to be sure.”
“But you think it’s her?” Agarwen asked.
“Yes, I do,” Evénn said. “I am confident she is the Spindrift at last.”
“So when will she arrive?”
“That depends entirely on the wind and tide, Agarwen, and both are against her now. Late tonight, I would say, or early tomorrow morning.”
“Good to know,” Jalonn said to him. “For my part, I’ll be meeting with our mysterious Rangers later. Tonight, I imagine. So perhaps we can be on our way tomorrow.”
“Just so,” replied Evénn. “The longer we are here, the more danger we are in.”
“That much is certain, whatever news they bring.”
After it was fully dark that night Jalonn made ready to leave Rafenor’s house. For a minute he stood there, his own gray Ranger’s cloak on his shoulders, and in his hands he held out the dragon’s cloak he had been wearing. He pondered which would serve him better that night. Deciding on his own, he handed the other cloak to Arden who, along with all the rest, was awaiting Jalonn’s departure. He and Niall were still displeased that Jalonn was going. To their attempt to raise the question once more, a curt shake of his head was the only answer. They pursued it no further. They knew that Master Raynall himself had difficulty swaying Jalonn once his mind was made up.
Rafenor and his brother stood by and waited on the grass near the porch. On the steps sat Agarwen with Evénn, who was trying to explain the mysteries of sailing to one who had never seen the ocean until just over four months ago. Behind them on the top step Mirah leaned against a post, her arms folded in front of her, and looked at her husband as he waited to escort Master Jalonn across the city to meet the Rangers.
“Before we go, young man, let me thank you, your brother, and all your household for your assistance,” Jalonn said, nodding his head in turn to Torran, Rafenor, and Mirah.
“You are welcome. We should go,” Torran said and with a last glance at Mirah, he started for the gate. Jalonn followed.
“He thanked us because he might not return,” Rafenor said after they were gone.
“He is grateful for your help,” Agarwen said from her seat on the steps.
“He is the Master of Swords?”
“He is.”
“If you do not succeed, he will be the last one.”
Agarwen laughed.
“There will always be a Master of Swords.”
Outside the gate Torran and Jalonn turned left to the end of the street, then right. For a few minutes they continued straight on, but the young man soon led them into a narrow lane between buildings which took them in a labyrinth of small streets and allies so winding that anyone not raised there, not even a Ranger, would have quickly found himself utterly lost. As Jalonn moved along through this maze behind Torran, he was impressed by how sure he was of his way. There was never a moment’s doubt or hesitation. Torran knew these streets like he knew his own name, and the route to their destination never seemed in question for him. When Jalonn saw the speed and caution of his movements, the silence he kept as they went, never saying an unneeded word or making and unnecessary gesture, often stopping to wait and listen, Jalonn recalled several Rangers he had known, who could have learned from this young man’s quiet proficiency. Once at a larger intersection of seven streets, they paused in the shadows for nearly fifteen minutes until Torran felt it was safe to move on.
After more than an hour of these twists and turns, they emerged onto a broad, straight street, which ran east and west.
“We are now in the part of Inshanar controlled by the rebels,” Torran told him in a low voice. “What you and I just passed through we call The Warrens. Even before the dragon fell it was the most dangerous part of the city, far more so than the docks. Most of the dragon’s men won’t go in there unless they have to, but there are several who have the nerve for it. They grew up in there and we must avoid them if we can. Here it is safe to speak again.”
“You seem to know The Warrens well,” Jalonn said.
“Well enough to find my way.”
“Do you see the man watching us from the roof behind me?”
“Second building back on your left,” Torran answered.
“Precisely,” Jalonn said, pleased that he had noticed, “but which way now?”
Without a word Torran led him away westward down the street, past stores and houses much like those which Arden and Niall had seen the night before. Now and again they heard a door shut, or a raised voice through a window, but they saw no one except the occasional watcher on a rooftop. Jalonn wondered how many they had missed, the more clever ones who kept their profiles low against the chimneys, gables, and roof lines, or who peered out from within dark second story windows. But they did not speak of it and continued on their way. For a meeting like this, with an anxious group of rebels, it was best to allow themselves to be seen coming. When they had traveled a bit further, rounding several more corners, Torran spoke again.
“Why does that one Ranger, the tall one, keep looking at my Mirah?”
The question took Jalonn off guard and at first he did not answer.
“Arden? When he was a lad, several summers younger than you are now, he loved a girl. The day Narinen fell he left her in a place he thought was safe. He was wrong. No place was safe that day. He has regretted that choice bitterly every day since. From his description of her, I would guess that your wife looks very much like her. You needn’t worry, however.”
As Jalonn was speaking, Torran stopped dead and stared at him.
“Thirty years? He has borne that regret for thirty years? That’s almost as foolish as his leaving her.”
“We are all fools in some ways, Torran,” Jalonn answered, smiling to himself at the certainty and intolerance so typical of a young man. “Arden loved her deeply. What if it were your Mirah?”
For a moment Torran considered this question.
“I would never leave Mirah.”
“Then perhaps your folly lies elsewhere.”
“No doubt it does,” Torran laughed quietly. “Come, we’re almost to the meeting place.”
After one final corner they entered into a wider street, unpaved, but lined with more of those same whitewashed houses with dark wood framing so common in Inshanar. At its far end two men were leaning against a wagon and smoking. When either of them drew on their pipes, Jalonn could glimpse their faces in the red glow, but they were too far away for him to make out their features. He saw alleys on both sides of them. More wagons stood near their exits. From one of the alleys Jalonn heard movement and knew that soon after he and Torran passed the rebels concealed there would push the wagons into the street, cutting off their retreat.
The two men ambled slowly into the middle of the street to meet them. One muttered something to the other which Jalonn could not catch. When he and Torran were almost there, they heard the wagons begin rumbling out of the alleys behind them. Neither of them looked back. Beside him Torran seemed very much at ease.
“You’ve done this before, lad,” Jalonn said.
“A time or two,” Torran replied.
And then they were there, face to face with the two men. Each side waited to see who would speak first.
“We’re here,” Torran said calmly to them. “Where’s Aldas? And where are the Rangers?”
“All in good time, Torran,” the shorter of the two answered, then looked directly at Jalonn. “Who are you?”
“My name is Jalonn,” the swordmaster said, pulling back his hood to reveal his face in the moonlight.
“Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
“You asked who I was. I told you.”
“There’s no need to be surly,” Torran said to the man, annoyed. “Rafenor and I had an agreement with Aldas to meet here at this hour. Where is he?”
“All is well, lad,” the man replied. “This fellow and I were just about to discuss that. Isn’t that right?”
The man, who had been looking at Torran again, returned to Jalonn.
“So, you’re a Ranger.”
“Yes,” he answered.
“Then prove it.”
“As you please.”
With that the man jumped forward, aiming a blow at Jalonn’s head, but the swordmaster stepped into him, striking him hard in the ribs with the pommel of his half drawn sword. As the man doubled over, Jalonn tripped him and threw him to the ground with his right hand, while re-sheathing his sword with his left. The second man also came at him in a rush, which Jalonn sidestepped, seizing the front of the man’s shirt up near his throat. He pivoted, using his attacker’s momentum against him to jerk his head forward and down. His balance lost, the man could only follow the circle Jalonn dragged him stumbling through, before he planted his foot and pulled him up so short that his feet came out from under him and he landed hard on his back. Out of the shadowy doorways and alleys around them others came two or three at a time, until nine men lay on the street, some unconscious, others gasping in pain for their breath, but all alive.
Torran had stood by motionless. He knew this was not his battle and none of the rebels had attacked him. They had challenged Jalonn to prove himself and he had accepted the challenge. In the Dark Lantern and elsewhere, he had witnessed many contests, some quite unequal, but never one unequal in quite this way. He smiled to think what a story his brother could have spun from this brief scene.
“You didn’t draw your sword,” he said when it was over.
“Their hands were empty,” Jalonn responded.
Further down the street on their right a door opened and three figures filed out, two of them cloaked and hooded like Rangers, the third short and rather plump. As they came closer, the tallest of the Rangers stepped quickly forward, threw back his hood, and extended his arms to grasp Jalonn by the shoulders.
“Jalonn,” he said.
“Hansarad,” Jalonn said in answer, surprised and pleased, and Torran could hear the joy in his voice at meeting the younger man. The two Rangers embraced. Even in the moonlight Torran could see the ugly scar which ran along Hansarad’s cheekbone and up into the hair above his right ear.
“Jalonn, forgive us the challenge, but we had to be sure it was really you. I knew the enchantments of the dragon could make a man look like you; but they could not make one fight like you.”
“A wise precaution,” Jalonn said, “but who’s this with you?”
“It’s Dara, one of my – she’s a captain now.”
“Captain Dara, I remember you well.”
“And I you, Master Jalonn,” she replied, but in her voice Jalonn could hear an edge he had not heard there before.
“Now what’s brought you two here at such risk, Hansarad? What made you take the road, of all things?”
“We were desperate, Jalonn. The silver dragon knows you are all here. How, I don’t know. But he is coming here and has sent troops ahead. They will probably be here in the morning. The dragon of course could show up at any time.”
“How do you know this? And what of the other dragons?”
“After Narinen, they flew off to the west and have not returned. How we came by this knowledge is a long story we can tell later. Right now, tonight, you must all leave.”
“We cannot leave yet, but we hope to tomorrow.”
“Jalonn, you cannot stay here,” he protested.
Jalonn then pulled Hansarad and Dara aside and in a few brief whispers explained to them why they were in Inshanar and why they must stay until at least tomorrow. Torran and Aldas, who had moved forward to stand next to his cousin, looked on. They could not hear Jalonn’s words, but they saw Hansarad and Dara nodding as if they suddenly understood everything.
“Then we must buy you the time you need to get aboard and away,” Hansarad said. “When is the first tide you can sail on?”
“Tomorrow afternoon, I am told,” answered Jalonn. “The ship is still well out in the offing, and she will be fighting wind and tide much of the night just to get near the harbor.”
“But he’s sure it’s his ship?” Dara asked.
“Yes, he went down to the sea several times this afternoon, and when he returned at sunset he said he had no doubt.”
“Then for all our sakes let us hope the eyes of the elves are as keen as the songs make them,” Hansarad said.
“Indeed,” Jalonn said before turning to address Aldas. “But what of the rebels? What do you know of the troops coming this way? What plan do you have?”
“We have sent out scouts tonight, sir,” Aldas replied diffidently, intimidated at speaking to the Master of Swords and overwhelmed by how easily he had bested his men. “Only one has returned so far. She tells us that about three hundred of the silver dragon’s troops are now camped five miles north of the city. They will be here in the morning.”
“But do you have a plan, Aldas? How many men do you have?”
“We do, sir,” he stuttered. “We only have about three hundred men ourselves – Inshanar is not as well peopled as it once was – and we plan to attack the troops within the city first, and then hold the north gate against the troops who will be here tomorrow. This was my idea,” he added nervously.
“And it is a good idea, Aldas,” Jalonn said confidently and clapped Aldas on the shoulder, making him jump, “but midnight is drawing near and you may expect the dragon’s troops at the gate by dawn at the very latest. Now is the time to set your plan in motion. Hansarad, Dara, and I will help you as we can.”
“Thank you, sir, but what if the dragon comes?”
“If the dragon comes, Aldas, the dragon comes. We cannot control that.”
“But will you and the dragonslayer kill him?”
“If ever we can, Aldas. Now, we must begin. Now, do you hear? Get your men ready. I shall need to see your other leaders as well.”
“Of course,” Aldas said and started back towards the building from which he and the Rangers had come.
“Torran,” Jalonn said, looking around, “you must go back to your house by the shortest route and tell them what has happened here. Tell Rafenor that he must try to muster more men if he can.”
“I will, Jalonn,” Torran said and ran off. The rebels pulled back one of the wagons to let him through.

The Fulcrum of Dreams -- Chapter 3.1


“My sword?” Arden asked in surprise.
“It’s not your sword,” the storyteller said. “It’s my uncle’s.”
Arden looked in astonishment at the hilt of the sword his hand rested upon. He had carried it since the Fall. To him it had always been the Captain’s sword, ever since he had watched the Captain of the Mountain Gate of Narinen wield it with skill and courage the day the dragons came. Once the Gate was broken, the Captain had led them in a desperate struggle to hold back the enemy for as long as they could. He and every other man there that day had perished when a building collapsed upon them and blocked the street they were defending, every man but Arden, who pulled the sword from the rubble which denied the dragon’s men entry. He carried it in the Captain’s memory, but to this day he did not know the man’s name.
“What was his name?” Arden stammered.
“Damlann. He was my father’s brother, twenty two years my senior,” the storyteller replied. “I was a very small boy when my father and I put him on a ship for the City. After that we seldom saw him. His duties kept him away for years on end, but whenever he came home, he told me tales of the City and of other places he had been. That’s where I got my taste for stories, he told them so well. Then the City fell and he did not return again.”
Arden studied the storyteller’s face as he spoke. It was a hard face, line by cares and the desperate laughter of tavern dwellers, but in it he could catch a reflection of the Captain’s features. He knew the man spoke the truth. They stood looking at each other. Niall had retreated with Argos to the dockside end of the alley where they could keep watch for the others.
“How do you know this is his sword?”
“The green jewel in the pommel. When Janan – the innkeeper, I mean – opened the lantern behind me, the gem caught the light and then my eye. From the time I was a boy, I have remembered how that gem flashed. I looked at you, too, Ranger, but you had eyes only for my brother, Torran’s wife.”
Arden was startled and abashed to hear how obvious his attention had been.
“I meant no offense.”
“No,” he answered, “you didn’t. I could tell it was a ghost you were seeing, that you have a tale of your own to tell. Many do.”
Arden stared at this man who seemed to see so clearly.
“But that’s not the story I want to hear.”
“I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
“Good. Then we can do business. But not here. The sun’ll be up soon. I know a place.”
“There’ll be three more coming to meet us here. They’ll be dressed as we are, and will have a wolf with them.”
“My brother can wait for them. Leave the dog – what’s his name?”
“Leave the dog with him, so they’ll trust him. He can bring them to us.”
“Wait here,” the storyteller said and left to return to the tavern.
After he left, Arden joined Niall at the end of the alley. To Niall’s look of inquiry, he answered that he trusted the storyteller, and that was enough for Niall. In a few minutes the man returned with his brother from the tavern. To Arden’s relief the young woman was not with them. He felt sure he would have out blushed the approaching dawn, if he saw her just now.
They left Argos with Torran who sat down on a piling by the water. The hound quickly took to the young man, and sat beside him. After they fetched their horses, the storyteller led them along the many twists and turns of the narrow ways near Inshanar’s docks. Finally they came to a door in a high brick wall, twice the height of a man. It all looked as sorry as most of what they had seen since entering the town, but it seemed at least strong and secure.
But once they were through the door, their impressions changed. For a garden planted with flowers of many hues and scents greeted them. White roses were everywhere, climbing trellises all around the outer walls. Between the walls and the brick house at the center stretched a rich, green lawn, and on one end of the house they saw a spacious roofed porch, on which stood an eight sided table as wide as Arden was tall. The last thing they had been expecting to find near the docks was a peaceful refuge, secluded from the noise and filth of the streets outside.
“Have a seat,” the storyteller said, gesturing to the porch. “I’ll see to your horses.”
At the table Niall and Arden found themselves enjoying the morning. Within these walls it was serene and for a while they nearly forgot the cares which brought them here so unexpectedly, the dragons, the war, the ship, and the two Rangers they were seeking. This garden was an island in the midst of a calm sea. They took pleasure in it while they could, but neither Arden nor Niall were the men of peace they had been raised to be. Before long their thoughts again reached out beyond the walls to seek for their troubles.
The door to the house opened and the young woman they had seen in the tavern came out. Her blond hair was tied loosely behind her head now and she wore a dress of a rich dark blue. She was barefoot and moved noiselessly towards them. In her hands she carried a tray with three mugs and a simple pot which she set down on the table near them.
“I have brought you some tea,” she said. “He will join you shortly, but he asked me to tell you that your friends, the ones you are looking for, are already being sought.”
Both Rangers bowed their heads to her as she poured out green tea into two of the cups and set them before them.
“Tell me your name, young woman,” Niall said to her, “so we may thank you properly.”
She laughed.
“Why do you laugh?” Niall asked.
“We are not used to such courtesy here on the docks of Inshanar.”
“Even so, your kindness to us this morning merits our thanks.”
“My name is Mirah.”
“Mirah, I am Niall son of Erinor, and this is Arden son of Tyr, and for your kindness you have our gratitude. We thank you for the tea.”
She smiled and laughed again.
“Gentlemen, you are welcome. You are guests in my house, which is first the house of my husband and his brother. I could do no less.”
Without looking, Niall could feel Arden wince from across the table. Mirah noticed his reaction, and looked at him briefly, with curiosity in her eyes, but Arden’s face was composed. He smiled back at her politely.
“Could you also tell us the name of our host?” he asked.
“He didn’t tell you, did he?” Mirah said, laughing. “He’s like that. His name is Rafenor. Now I must go speak to the cook about your breakfast before I sleep.”
She left them then and did not return, though for some time they could catch the sound of her voice from within. Arden had little more to say, so Niall sipped his tea and waited for Rafenor to return. He joined them shortly and sat down to a pipe and a cup of tea. Niall offered him his thanks, which he declined.
“We’re doing each other a favor. His story,” he said, pointing at Arden with his pipe, “is all I require.”
He sat drawing on his pipe for a minute.
“Mirah told you that we are already seeking your Rangers?” he asked, and when Niall nodded, he continued. “So far, we have learned that they’re in the rebels’ part of the city. It will take a little time to persuade the rebels to listen to our inquiries. They’re not too fond of us over there.”
“Why?” Arden asked.
“When the rebellion began, the people in Inshanar rose up as well. They hated the dragon and his men. But few had ever seen a dragon, do you see? All they knew were his servants, who were men like us, and from them they knew what to expect. Life was hard, cruel, but they could predict it. Then, about two months ago, we heard what happened to Narinen and soon after that the silver dragon came here. That was a different story altogether. It scared people. Some around here started thinking that maybe life before wasn’t so bad. When you make your living from the sea, you learn there are some storms you can’t weather, and that’s how they see the dragons. So the rebels don’t trust us any more than the troopers do.”
“Finding them may prove difficult then,” Niall said.
“No,” Rafenor said and thought about it for a moment. “Tricky would be the better word.”
“Is there anything we can do to make it simple?” Arden asked.
“Better let me handle it. They know me,” Rafenor said. “Though, now that I come to think of it, once we’ve convinced the rebels to admit that the Rangers are with them, we’ll need a way to convince the Rangers themselves that they aren’t walking into a trap.”
“We can help there, I think,” said Niall. “There are passwords, of course, but those change. One of us could go to them.”
“It may come to that,” Rafenor said, “but for now all we can do is wait. Once my brother arrives with your other friends, he’ll go see the rebels himself. That will help.”
Rafenor leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. Sitting there with his pipe in his mouth and his cup by his elbow, the storyteller seemed as much at home in his quiet garden as he had last night amid the noise and laughter of the Dark Lantern. As Arden watched him he could easily imagine him in that chair every morning, engrossed in a book and enjoying the quiet. Several hours ago Arden would never have guessed as much. The storyteller had seemed a creature entirely of the night. Suddenly Rafenor looked up at him.
“Now tell me where you got the sword,” he said to Arden.
Though Arden was normally averse to recounting the tale of Narinen, he felt no reluctance today and began at once with his arrival at the Mountain Gate. Telling Rafenor the tale of his uncle’s hopeless courage struck him as a debt he owed the Captain’s memory. Even if Arden rued outliving that day, he had no doubt that he would have died then, had it not been for the Captain, and in the months since he had met Evénn, Arden had come to see that he had perhaps survived for a reason. Because of the Captain, he had been in the square to save Mahar’s bow; he had met Jalonn who brought him and the bow to the Rangers; he had met Evénn who carried the sword and revealed the identity of the bow; and together they had slain the red dragon. Arden did not understand the reason, but reflecting on it made him see that there was more to this world than he had long wished to believe. It did not lessen his pain or loss, but he felt less alone with them. Telling Rafenor the Captain’s story was almost a pleasure.
And a surprise. To Niall who listened to Arden as he spoke with pride of fighting beside the Captain, no less than to Jalonn and the others who came in with Rafenor’s brother in the middle of the story. Master Jalonn knew Arden longer than anyone, and all he could do was raise his eyebrows when he heard him. Evénn and Agarwen exchanged a look of quiet pleasure. Even the storyteller, who rarely took his eyes off Arden during the tale, could see in the faces of Niall and the others that this was a departure for Arden. For that reason he appreciated the favor, as he called it, all the more. He waved the others to seats at the table and poured them tea from a fresh pot brought out by Torran, but he would not allow Arden to be interrupted.
There was little need. Since Arden spoke only of what happened at the Mountain Gate, his story was soon done. Niall introduced Evénn, Jalonn, and Agarwen to Rafenor, and explained to them the steps Rafenor was taking to find the other Rangers. Almost immediately breakfast arrived on steaming platters full of fresh bread, eggs, and bacon. It was so plentiful that not even the wolf and Argos left the table hungry. Safe behind the walls, the hound and the wolf lay sleeping in the sun, while one by one the companions entered the house to rest. In time Evénn withdrew from the table to sit quietly beneath an arbor by the outer wall. It was covered with at least twelve dozen white roses that gleamed in the morning light. Only Jalonn and Rafenor were left at the table, where they sat and smoked.
“You keep a good table, Rafenor,” Jalonn said, “and you treat your guests well. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“You are welcome,” he responded, “and Niall has already thanked me.”
“But I have not. Your kindness will not be forgotten by the Rangers.”
“Arden’s tale of my uncle is all the thanks I require.”
“The Captain of the Mountain Gate was your uncle, then?”
“I cannot claim to have known him, though I met him several times during my time in the City. More often I heard him spoken of, always with praise.”
The storyteller did not reply to this, but nodded slowly as if pleased, and continued puffing on his pipe. To Jalonn’s eye he seemed to be engaged in an inner debate, weighing whether he should give voice to his thoughts or keep silent. As a man who did not speak much himself, but constantly observed others, Jalonn was familiar with that expression in a man’s eyes, which told of a moment’s inward glance as the man watched the scales of decision balance in his mind. That was the look in Rafenor’s hazel eyes this morning.
At breakfast Jalonn had seen him talk much, plying Arden and the others with questions, but never pressing a point or lingering, always moving on to the next point, then telling a story or two of his own about Inshanar or Rangers he had known. He made himself the center of their attention, but he was clearly using his stories and questions to observe them. He was shrewd. Now Jalonn watched and let him be, knowing that no seemingly innocent question of his own would draw the matter of Rafenor’s inner debate from him. When the storyteller’s gaze turned outward again, he met Jalonn’s eye as if he saw reflected there what the Master had seen. One corner of his mouth went up slightly and he looked amused. Jalonn decided that he liked Rafenor.
“Do you think you will win?” he asked Jalonn.
“Yes,” Jalonn answered without hesitation.
“That simple?”
“Nothing’s that simple, but, yes, we shall win.”
“The cost will be dreadful.”
“It already is.”
“To you, I mean, and to those with you.”
Jalonn turned and looked at him closely. Rafenor gazed steadily back at him. Now no smirk was on his face, no glimmer of laughter showed in his expression. His face was grave, asking Jalonn only if he understood how dear the price of slaying the dragons would be.
“Yes, I know,” he said.
“Someday this may be a story someone else tells, but for now it is a tale of blood and sorrow that you must all live and die in.”
“So be it.”
And in Rafenor’s glance Jalonn could see that the debate within him was resolved. Rafenor leaned back in his chair and lay down his pipe.
“I must go see about your Rangers,” he said. “We should have heard something more by now.”
“There is one more thing,” Jalonn said, reaching a decision himself.
Rafenor gave him an inquiring look.
“We are waiting for a ship.”
“A ship?”
“Yes, it should have been here last week or the week before.”
“Few ships come to Inshanar. This is a fishing port, mostly.”
“It is a dragon ship, the packet that comes once a year around this time. It belongs to him,” Jalonn said and tossed his head in Evénn’s direction.
“The Spindrift? Really?” Rafenor answered, half smiling and clearly amazed.
“Really. It is how we plan to cross the sea to attack the other dragons in their own lairs.”
Rafenor grinned, then threw back his head and laughed.
“How perfect,” he said. “The dragonslayer hides in the service of the dragon. I shall inquire about this ship.”
He walked away, still chuckling. He let himself out the door and closed it behind him. Jalonn arose and went inside to sleep.
Across the garden Evénn raised his head to watch Jalonn go. He had been listening to their conversation and decided that he, too, liked Rafenor. It eased his mind that Jalonn had enlisted the storyteller’s help to discover what he could about the Spindrift. Coming into Inshanar after the mysterious Rangers was a sword that cut two ways. They were now closer to the quay where the Spindrift would dock when she came, which would make their swift departure easier, but they were also more exposed in the town, despite the high walls surrounding Rafenor’s home. It was one thing to pose as dragon’s men to slip past a weary officer in the middle of the night, but quite another to keep up that deception once their presence became known in the port. If the Spindrift came today or tomorrow, all would probably be well. But if another week passed, their position would become riskier as each day went by.
And what if one or more of the dragons came? Even now he could feel them searching for him, trying to get through the barriers of his mind and pin him down. What of Arden? Could he keep them at bay in his own mind, in his dreams? Arden’s embrace of prayer and meditation over the last four months had been impressive, as had the openness with which he usually discussed his dreams with him. Several days after the red dragon was killed, Arden had come to him, saying that he did not want the dragons’ ability to find him in his dreams to endanger the company again. He could not, he said, rely on his unwilling taste of the black dragon’s blood to overcome the dragon’s magic again. The last time had been too close. And the blood drew them on as much as it gave him the ability to resist.
No doubt because of his efforts, Arden was stronger. He was more at peace and less bitter from day to day than he had been when they had met in the autumn. The release Arden had found beside Sorrow’s grave the day after the red dragon’s fall had changed him. Evénn had seen it from a distance and he had been glad, though he had said nothing of it to Arden. But if Arden was more at peace, he was also more distant and dreamier. Casting off his burden even in part had opened doors within him which seemed to lead beyond this world. If some of these places could give him a moment’s joy, none of these places were hidden from the dragons.
Evénn sighed. Where was the Spindrift? Where were the dragons? And what did the red dragon’s dying words mean? “I shall not die entirely.” Nothing died entirely, least of all great beings of the world of spirits. The dragon knew that as well as Evénn. There seemed little point in the remark if it did not have some special meaning. But what was it? The words troubled him, as they had since the moment he heard them. Evénn sighed again and wished he had Jalonn’s confidence.

The Fulcrum of Dreams -- Chapter 2.3

With that Arden and Niall put on the cloaks of the silver dragon, and chose two of the dead troopers’ horses. At first the horses shied when they tried to mount them, but Niall softly repeated a spell he knew to calm them. Arden and Niall then spent a few minutes talking to them. They stroked their heads and necks, and allowed them to become familiar with their new riders.
Once mounted, they moved away from the beech tree and down the road at a trot. It did not take long to cover the mile and a half to Inshanar. They slowed a little as they neared the open gates. No guards were in sight. No torches were burning on the walls or in the tunnel behind the gates. It looked just as it had every night since they had arrived almost a month ago. They loosened their swords and daggers and entered.
“Much depends on whom we meet first,” Arden said to Niall in a hushed voice as they walked their horses inside. “The rebels will attack us, dressed as we are. The soldiers will accept us at first, but may ask questions we cannot answer. Those who have given up the rebellion will fear us because they’ll know troopers will despise and distrust them. We won’t get much of a welcome in any event.”
“No, but whoever meets us first will probably have met the other two already,” Niall replied.
“If they came this way.”
“It’s the shortest path, and what else can we do?”
Emerging from the tunnel, they found the city only slightly less dark. Inshanar had always been a small port used mostly by fishermen and a few merchants. Its chief importance lay in the sheltered but small anchorage it offered to ships moving up and down the coast to trade. There they could find refuge from a storm or a small but lively market for their wares that could carry them through until the wind better suited their needs. Messages could be sent by horse inland or to other cities to the north and south. In the time of the dragon Inshanar had also provided a useful, out of the way, spot for packets, like the Spindrift, to land or pick up the many spies and hunters who roamed the Land of Narinen and sought to root out the discontented or outlaws like the Rangers. Both now and in the days of the Republic Inshanar was most well known as a haven whose quays were lined with taverns frequented by men hardened by the sea. Ships of the Republic had put into Inshanar only at need, and the officers never let their seamen out of sight while there.
After a few minutes Arden and Niall found themselves at a crossroads, looking down unpaved streets wide enough for two carts to pass each other with care. The buildings on either side had white washed walls, which were framed by dark wooden beams, and were just tall enough to keep the light of the waning moon out of the street. A few upper windows were open to catch the hope of cooler air from the sea breeze. Here and there a ragged curtain fluttered. But no light shone anywhere. Nothing moved. Not a dog barked. All was still and silent.
“This isn’t good,” Niall muttered. “Whoever claims this part of the city, they’re letting us come far enough in to trap us.”
“Aye,” said Arden. He was looking down at Argos, who was alert, but had not growled once. “He hasn’t picked up anything yet, though.”
“Perhaps we should have brought the wolf instead,” Niall responded. “These cloaks and Argos don’t suit each other. No one will know what to make of us.”
“That could be a good thing, under the circumstances.”
“We could also get shot full of arrows, under the circumstances.”
Arden laughed softly, but the sound was out of place in this empty street and seemed to fall dead upon the ground before them. Yet Arden knew well the truth in Niall’s jest, and brought his horse to a halt as they reached a cross street, the first they had come to. They sat and studied the shadows around them.
“The harbor will be this way,” he finally said, gesturing to his left.
They reined their horses around and slowly moved out of the crossroads. Twenty yards from it, a voice cried out to them to stand their ground. Men appeared from doorways all around them, dragon’s men, and both Arden and Niall felt sure that bowmen stood hidden inside the open windows above them. Argos snarled but made no move.
“Whom do you serve?” Arden called out to the men, refusing to let them speak first.
A figure stepped forward. Now that they were on a street, which ran east and west, the light of the moon, four nights past full, illuminated the man dimly. Arden could make out the lower half of his face and caught the glimmer of eyes beneath his hood as he raised his head to Arden. A white beard, an older man then, and perhaps less likely to be hasty.
“For many years we served the red dragon,” he said in a tired voice, “but no one has come here since he fell. At least no one has stayed. So mostly we serve ourselves and wait.”
“We did not expect to find any of you still here,” said Arden and Niall laughed, earning himself a long stare from the man. “The silver dragon of Talor is our master. We come seeking two Rangers. They fled before us into this city not quite two hours ago. Have you seen them?”
“Oh, I doubt two Rangers fled before the two of you,” the man replied.
“We had a dozen companions to start with,” Arden answered him calmly. “They are all dead, but our duty is not yet done.”
“And a dog I see, a wolfhound.”
“You should read a book or two before you burn them,” Niall broke in. “Wolves are more rare across the sea than here. Many of us use dogs.”
“I read many a book before you were born, lad.”
“And since?”
“Enough,” Arden barked at Niall, then turned back to the man. “Pardon him. He lost his brother earlier tonight. So he is rather eager to find these Rangers just now. Have you seen them or not?”
The man looked at him for some time before answering.
“Yes, as you say, not quite two hours ago they came through here riding hard. Before we could get into position, they burst through our line, killing three of my men, my youngest son among them,” he said, and flashed another hard look at Niall, who turned away as if ashamed of his former words. “They went towards the harbor. I sent six men after them, but since they have not returned –”
“They are likely dead now.”
“Will you let us pass, then? We have no papers. We’ve been chasing those Rangers for four days and could not stop to secure passes. We will share the bounty with you.”
Again the man paused. Arden sensed that he was weary and grieving and did not much care whom he let pass. For tonight at least his duty was a formality which he performed to keep worse things at bay.
“Kill them if you can, and keep the bounty,” was all he said and stepped aside. His men also backed away.
“Three more of us will be coming this way before long,” Arden said, “and they will have a wolf with them. Let them pass, too, if you will. We may need their help.”
“You will,” the man answered as Arden, Niall, and Argos moved off.
“Sorry about your son,” Niall said as he urged his horse back to a trot.
“And your brother,” came the answer.
Inshanar was not large and presently they noticed that the houses and shops with dwellings above them were giving way to storehouses with docks for loading and unloading what few goods were brought in by sea. In the moonlight Niall and Arden could see the crest of the dragon on some of the doors, but the streets here were as deserted as when they had first entered the city. Midnight was well past when they came to the harbor itself.
True to their reputation the dockyards of Inshanar teemed with taverns and other establishments even less well esteemed. Here Arden and Niall came upon the first lights they had seen in the city. Braziers smoked and guttered outside open doors, shedding a faint light upon the cobblestones. After some searching they found a tavern which had a dark lantern hanging from a hook beside its door, its hatch slightly open to reveal the thinnest beam of light. No name could they see above the door or on either side. Now and then a raucous laughter erupted within. A fiddler was playing soft and low.
“This looks like it,” Niall said, gesturing at the lantern as he dismounted.
“I’d say so.”
“I like the look of it,” Niall remarked and walked in, ignoring Arden’s glance.
The name was surely apt, as they saw once inside. All light within came from dark lanterns, several behind the bar, each barely open, and a few more scattered about the tables. No one sat at those tables. Even that little light was too much. The air was thick and humid, smelling of salt, sweat, fish, and a hint of blood. Over it all lay a reek of pipe smoke that curled and spun when the patrons moved about or a breeze dared enter.
From the back of the room men with their backs to the wall and faces to the door watched Arden and Niall cross the room. If either looked back, their stares did not waver. These men, whoever they were, were unafraid. Others seemed more uneasy, keeping their backs turned or shading their eyes.
“What’ll it be,” said the innkeeper to Arden and Niall when they reached the bar. Though he was hurrying past, his pale blue eyes never left them as he moved, talking, pouring, joking, winking at the women. He never missed a customer, never brought the wrong drink, never the wrong change. The room was packed, but he was in control of it. His eyes seemed to look at them from far, far away.
“Come on, what’ll it be?” he asked as he strode past them again. “Don’t have all night here.”
“Two mugs of beer,” Niall said, smirking at the thought that night was all they ever had in places like this one.
The mugs appeared. Arden laid a Republican silver penny down in front of the innkeeper.
“Staying for a while then,” he said and was gone, talking and pouring, always dallying a bit if the customers were young women.
“We don’t see many of those anymore,” said a man beside Arden, and leaned over his pipe to peer at it, “especially not in hands like yours.”
“I imagine not,” Arden answered, doing his best to ignore him while he looked down the long bar towards the door and window. Two or three seats down was the source of the laughter they had heard coming in. A tall man, surrounded by a half a dozen listeners, was telling stories, not of great heroes and events in distant times, but of the everyday lives of the men and women known to the patrons of the inn. As he spoke he waved his hands about and swore frequently. Arden watched him closely, found that he was amusing, and knew how to hold his audience’s eye. So much the better, he thought, since that would mean fewer on him and Niall, who gave every appearance that he was minding his business and enjoying his beer.
“Well, they’re not here,” Niall murmured as if to himself, “but the beer is good.”
Again the innkeeper strode past, looking Arden in the eye the whole way. Behind the storyteller he stopped and opened one of the lanterns wide to fetch a light for someone's pipe.  In the sudden brightness, Arden saw shock flicker in Niall's eyes, followed by an involuntary glance at Arden. At once he looked down at his mug of beer.  Arden turned and there in the light of the open lantern, beyond the storyteller, he saw what Niall had seen. His breath hissed sharply between his teeth.
There in a small open spot of floor between the bar and tables a young man and woman were dancing to the fiddler's honey-slow tune.  It was a traditional dance that everyone learned as a child and danced a thousand times in a lifetime.  Arden had done so when a young man, as had Niall, and even Master Jalonn once confessed that he knew it. But never had Arden seen it danced so beautifully.  For the young couple moved through its slow turns and half steps with such harmony that they seemed made for each other, to dance this dance together. Every touch, every movement intimated their love.
The young man was tall, his brown hair shaggy, his beard untrimmed, his manner proud until he smiled at her. But it was she who had caught Niall’s eye.  From beneath the graceful arch of her brows and long lashes glittered the bright green eyes of Sorrow as they had known her so many years ago. And when she returned the young man's smile, she was as radiant as Sorrow had been in her joy.  Though her hair was straight and golden, and though she was not as tall, her face and form were those of Sorrow.  As they ended their dance in each other's arms, Arden's heart flinched to see them kiss and smile once more, but he could not look away.
Then the dark lantern was closed and night returned to the inn.  Niall was studying the patrons and sipping his beer.  He did not meet Arden's gaze.
“What do you see, Niall?”
“The men at the back wall almost certainly know about the Rangers, but they’re not the sort who like questions.”
“And the innkeeper has kept his eye on us, like he sees us as one bit of news that fits another. So he knows something, and knows we’re looking for it.”
“But he never stands still, and there is no privacy here.”
“So then you better talk to me,” a voice beside him said. It was the storyteller. “I can tell you what you want to know.”
“And what would that be?” Niall asked as he swung around to face him.
The storyteller gave them the smirk and sidelong glance commonly reserved for idiots. He tossed his head towards the door, and held up two fingers.
“Outside,” he said in a voice that could just be heard over the fiddle and commotion of voices, and walked back to his drink. He finished it, leaned over to the young man sitting next to him, but facing the young girl. With a hand on his shoulder he said something in his ear, at which the young man turned his head slightly and nodded. The storyteller clapped him on the shoulder, looked up at the girl and smiled. She smiled back and he headed for the door, ignoring Arden and Niall entirely. Arden was not watching, but had crouched down to talk to Argos, who lay between them and the crowd. All his attention seemed engaged with the dog.
A minute later Niall tapped Arden on the shoulder and started moving towards the door. Arden and Argos followed. Unlike in most crowds, Niall noticed, not everyone immediately stepped aside for men wearing the dragon’s cloak. Some did, with fearful looks, but others he had to shove aside. A few he asked to let them pass. Clearly the docks were not under the control of the dragon’s men, if they ever had been. But Niall perceived no threat here aside from the danger such places always hold for the unwary and the foolish. As they stepped out into the street again and he could see the first hint of dawn reflected in the sea, he remembered something his father had told him as a child, the day he began to teach him to sail.
“There are three things you must remember about the sea, Niall,” he had said. “It never sleeps, never rests, and it’s not your friend.”
For the people of the docks and the fishermen these facts governed their outlooks and their lives, and they applied them to far more than the sea. Some accepted them, some feared them, but no one ignored them. They knew that life, like the sea, could turn fierce in an instant, and all they could do was trim their sails and run before the storm or die. To them the dragons and the rebellion were both storms to run before.
Niall and Arden looked up and down the street for the storyteller, but Argos found him first. A puff of pipe smoke from around a corner several taverns away brought his head up and his ears forward, and he began running down the street towards it. Arden and Niall followed cautiously. As they turned the corner, the storyteller withdrew further up the alley, beckoning to them. In the narrowest part of the alley he stopped. Crates and barrels were stacked high along either wall.
“What do you want to know?” he asked.
“How much?” Niall answered.
The storyteller gave them that look again.
“Less than you think. What do you want to know?”
Niall did not answer. Arden, his hand on the hilt of his sword, was looking up and down the alley and scanning the roof lines above them.
“Let me tell you something,” the storyteller went on. “You’re looking for two Rangers who entered the city tonight. Why, I don’t know. I don’t care. Am I right?”
He asked but it was not a question.
“The bounty on a Ranger’s head is high,” Niall said, playing his part. “The bounty on two –”
“Let me tell you something else,” he interrupted Niall impatiently, waving his hands at him to stop. “I know you’re Rangers, too. No two dragon’s men, no two hunters even, would have come down here alone, not in the middle of the night. They wouldn’t pay in Republican silver. And that dog? Don’t even try to tell me you’re not Rangers.”
Niall opened his mouth, but before he could reply, the storyteller went on.
“Lie to me again and we’re done,” he said, emphasizing his point with a finger in Niall’s shoulder.
Niall closed his mouth and turned to Arden, who was now watching them both closely. He shrugged and Niall turned back to the storyteller.
“Listen,” the storyteller continued, “I can find them for you. Quicker than you can. Even with the silver and gold you have in your purse, you’ll have a hard time learning what you want to know. Down here the people don’t much care about your war or your rebellion. A lot of them think killing the dragon only made things worse. Three times the dragons have come here since then, and the word is they’re coming back. A lot of these people will take your gold, then sell you to the dragon’s men as soon as you’re out of sight. I won’t.”
“Why not?” Arden asked.
“Because I need you to tell me something. That’s all I want. Then I’ll help you and we’re done.”
“What do you want to know?”
The storyteller studied them both, his gaze drifting back and forth between them. Then he pointed at Arden.

“I want to know where he got that sword.”