Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 6
Next: INTERLUDE

The army of Amefel moved at the brisk pace of the horses, so that they had progressed well out from Henas'amef before the sun rose above the hills—while signal fires lit on those hills advised all the outlying lands they were called to arms and must converge on the riverside by country trails and back roads and whatever served.
The whole land was now in movement. All the baggage that might have delayed them, even the equipage of the heavy horses, with the tents, all of that had gone to the river, the last of it following Cevulirn's passage, they needed no shelter with Modeyneth's hospitality halfway, and that left the Amefin nothing to do but make speed.
And sure enough, as the sun stood at noon, two riders appeared out of the distance and the folding of the hills.
Tristen had no doubt who it was. He knew Uwen by his riding and Gedd by his company. They came up on one another with all deliberate speed, and as they met, Uwen swung in close with him and Crissand.
"The Lord Commander's on 'is way," Uwen said first, "an' sent us back before he got to the river, but we told 'im all what he was set to hear, an' we come back fast as fast."
"The fires are lit," Tristen said. "I've taken precautions and left Emuin and Her Grace in charge, with Lusin. The Amefin that will march are marching."
"No delays as I can see, m'lord. I rode as far as Modeyneth. Lord Drusenan's gone to the wall, and roused out a good lot of archers to riverside, as ain't been needed yet, thank the gods, nor will be, if Lord Cevulirn's across."
"Good news," Tristen said, for Drusenan had promised archers, and if Cefwyn pressed too hard and fast from the east or if the enemy came south from the beginning without that encouragement, then archers on the southern bridges might serve them well.
But wizardry had now a third place to attack, and that was Idrys, riding hard toward the river… while Cefwyn, blind and deaf to magic, knew to watch Ryssand but not men closer to him. Still, the advantages wizardry had in Cefwyn's direction were all too attractive—for it was to protect Cefwyn that Tristen found himself constrained to take actions he would not of his own will take, when his heart told him to cast everything to the winds and follow Idrys to Cefwyn's camp.
He could not go as fast as his thoughts could fly: if magic alone would serve, he could have gone to Ilefínian before dawn, and stood face-to-face with Tasmôrden and the enemy. He could, he was sure, go aside now to the ruins of Althalen and have a way from there. Oh, there were ways and ways to reach Ilefínian, but only one to reach it with an army; and as much confidence as he had in his own strength, it was not enough to fling himself alone into the heart of his enemy's power: the temptation was there, the urge was there, but he trusted neither, fearing traps, not yet seeing enough into Ilefínian to know what he might face.
So he kept his pace at Uwen's side and at Crissand's, and they whiled away the time as they rode with Uwen's account and Uwen's questions, what had they done, who was in authority in Henas'amef and what time they hoped to make. Idrys had questioned Uwen and Gedd very closely, elicited every detail from Gedd, where he had lodged in town, when he had moved, when he had known men were following him and what he had done.
"Yet he gave no names," Crissand asked. "He gave no indication who it might be that he fears."
"Not a one," Uwen said. "Naught that we can do, 'cept by wish-in', which m'lord does, I'm sure."
"That I do," Tristen said fervently, "and wish him speed."
"Speed to us, too," Uwen said, and, turning in his saddle to glance back at the Amefin troop he had driven uphill and down, until men and horses alike had grown used to hard moving. "Ho, ye men, not so sore as ye'd ha' been wi'out ye rid through them hills, is't?"
"No, sir," the answer came back with many voices. "No, Captain, sir."
"Ain't sorry now."
"No, sir. No, Captain, sir."
"'At's the good word, an' gods bless!"
"Gods bless, sir!"
Tristen found himself moved to laughter despite the troubles of the night. So was Crissand. The sun was up, and the banners flew no matter the difficulty of flying them in the steady wind, for there were men on the move and on guard all across the land. To a man, they wore the red badges of Amefel, having no wish to run afoul of their own watchers in the hills.
And true enough, it was not so very long after that a copse of woods gave up two shadowy watchers who stepped out into the road.
"Lanfarnessemen," Crissand guessed, and Tristen was sure of it. The two went in forest colors and gray cloaks, and might as easily fade into the trees where they stood.
He was glad to see them, however, and drew rein where the rangers waited.
"Lord Tristen," the foremost said with all respect, and indeed, it was a man he had seen with Pelumer, once upon a time. "The El-wynim have moved from Althalen, all but a handful, who've raised an archer-tower there. The most have gone toward Modeyneth and toward the river."
Aeself had followed his orders. Auld Syes had culled her flock, he was sure, no less than the frozen bodies in the snow, but having Aeself's men out early and ranging into the rough lands gave him some trepidation… not least for Idrys, whose presence within their lines he had not anticipated. He hoped Idrys had gone as he planned, to the river, to Sovrag: but Idrys was a man apt to change his plans on the instant and do things no one foresaw… to his hazard, in a province ready to defend itself against Tasmôrden's men.
"The Lord Commander of Ylesuin is on the roads," Tristen said to the two Lanfarnessemen, "and he may take any sort of clothing and go by himself. No one should harm him."
"A number of men with the red cloth rode out on this road and two rode back to you," the silent man said. "There was a dark man of rank, who stayed with the main body, and where they went is under others' watch. We'll pass that word as quickly as we can."
"Nothin' faster 'n the Lord Commander's apt to move," Uwen said under his breath.
"Do what you can," Tristen said to the rangers, who retreated back into the woods, a trickery of the eye the moment they were within the underbrush.
"Gods send he don't run into Aeself," Uwen said. "We told him about the red bands, and I saw to it he were wearin' one. Whether he'll keep it…"
That the signal they had agreed on, Amefin colors, a costly dye, none an intruder could find so easily in his pack or a piece of a common blanket: either cloak or coat, pennon or a scrap of cloth about the helm. It was Pelumer's canny notion, and even his rangers, colorless against the land, wore that one bright badge, scraps of red they showed about the wrist, no more, for Pelumer's men counted on going unseen.
"I shan't wish," Tristen said, fearful of intruding on Idrys' choices, whatever they were: he knew how stealthily the Lord Commander moved in the court and in the field, and there was a real chance that Idrys might at any moment change his mind and his direction and his apparent allegiance, either because the boats might not be where they hoped or because Idrys simply rode the currents of his own unmagical wizardry, and chose not even to have friends and allies know what he would do next. The one thing certain about him was that he was Cefwyn's man, and answered only to Cefwyn.
And on that resolution not to intervene Tristen set the company moving at the same steady pace, as much as they could prudently ask of the horses and still keep them fit for days of effort afterward.
If he wished anything, it was that Cevulirn might have the bridge open and a secure footing on the other side of the river, but that was as much as he wanted, and he wanted that very quietly, with the least possible disturbance of the gray space, emulating, as he could, master Emuin, who could go unseen there.
He had learned from master Emuin, how to be curious without wishing any particular outcome, and thereby how to go more quietly in that place. He had learned by comparison to Emuin how very great a disturbance he could make.
More, he realized now, from Crissand and Efanor and others with the gift unrealized, but who touched the gray space with their innocent wishes, that, even before he knew that the gray space existed, before Emuin had shown it to him, he had been a troubling influence within it, boisterous and self-willed and obstinate.
So he must have been to Mauryl as well.
And had Mauryl not shown him the gray place because Mauryl feared his ignorance would lead him into danger? Or might access to that place have made him a danger, to himself, to Mauryl, to all around him?
Certainly he would have learned that others existed, and learned how to reach for them, before he had learned restraint.
By all he knew, Emuin had taken him in hand out of utter desperation… had shown him the gray place in great trepidation, marveling only that he had never found it for himself—and then Emuin had immediately retreated to the peace of Anwyfar, distant enough in Guelessar to watch him unseen. Baffling and painful as Emuin's desertion had seemed to him at the time, now he understood how Emuin's close presence would have tempted him into more and more dangerous exploration. The world of Men had been his distraction, discovery after discovery unsettling his understanding, leading him by small degrees, not great ones, and keeping him always uncertain of his balance.
Flesh as well as spirit.
The world of spirit had always been easier for him to explore—
easier, but infinitely more dangerous and less confined. Watch his feet, Mauryl had tried to teach him. Learn caution in a realm where the rules were simple, where if one stepped off the cliff edge, one fell to a predictable death—
Caution had been Emuin's wish and Emuin's hope for him… when he set free one who might know no bounds.
Win his friendship, Emuin had said to Cefwyn, regarding him, and on this ride it came to him what two things Emuin had wished to do in giving Cefwyn that advice: first to disarm him of the danger he posed to Cefwyn, to set any random wishes he might make to Cefwyn's good, not his ill; and secondly, to distract him with the questions of Cefwyn's material world and keep him occupied with that, out of the gray space.
The gray space might have been quieter before he came. It was certainly more silent in those days when Emuin had been at Anwyfar: the Aswydds had surely been aware of him and cannily held themselves remote.
Remote as Hasufin, too, had kept himself remote: Hasufin had shown no desire, past that first encounter at Lewenbrook, to come at close quarters with him.
Wizards of all different sorts had kept their distance, wary of his ignorance, wary of his disposition, wary of his power, but mostly, he believed now, wary of his lack of wizardry… not his lack of power, but his lack of the most basic rules wizards knew.
Wizards depended on those rules to work their magic; he did not.
Wizards planned all they did according to those rules.
He had none. He learned the art only to know what his friends and his enemies might do, or expect. But at the last, he did not find it of use.
In the world of Men, he traveled now to be where Cefwyn appointed him to be, assured that that was the one rule it was wise to follow, but constrained by the rules of the realm of Men as he was not constrained in the gray realm. His options were limited: Tasmôr-den could anticipate his moves and guard against them, using the constraints of the land.
But that wizards could not similarly predict his options had made his greater enemy lie quiet, waiting, perhaps, for him to reveal his limitations… or his intentions.
More unsettling to their wishing ways, they could not wish him to move in certain ways.
Mauryl had indeed despaired of him; Emuin had dealt with him only at safe distance; Hasufin had attempted to use Aséyneddin and his entire army, but then abandoned that hope, and still lost. Hasufin had hoped again in Tarien's child; but Tarien had come home to him to bear Cefwyn's son, come to return the Aswydds to their Place in the world. As good fling a stone into the sky: down it would come. Back the Aswyddim had come, even to perish and join the Shadows in the Zeide's stones, and the whole world sighed with the release of a condition that could not have persisted, the separation of the Aswydds from Hen Amas… were there not other needs that strained at the fabric of the world, and was not one Crissand, riding with him?
And was not one Orien, within her tomb?
And was not one another wizard, born in Amefel?
He had advised Cefwyn to cast the Aswydds out; and so it had served, for the hour of Hasufin's assault at Lewen field, but only for that hour. After Lewenbrook, it was possible Hasufin had wanted them apart from him, as much as he wanted them away from Henas'amef—until Hasufin had taken Cefwyn's son… but the Place itself had its conditions, stronger, it appeared, than those of Hasufin or himself, and by one means and another, the stone fell to earth, water ran downhill, birds came to their nest, and the Aswydds came back to their hall.
He, however, had no such Place, at least, that he had yet discovered: he only had persons. He had Crissand; he had Cefwyn; he had Ninévrisë of Elwynor and now Cefwyn's two sons.
But he himself felt no inclination to rush to earth. He found no downhill course. He had no direction, other than the needs of those he loved.
Was he himself a hill down which those who knew him, who trusted him, must flow?
And was that the danger inherent in him? That when stones did fall, when water did run downhill, they might wreak havoc in the world?
He was not like Crissand, not like Cefwyn, nor Ninévrisë, nor like Mauryl nor yet like Emuin, and he was not like Uwen, or Idrys.
Nothing like him existed or had existed—not even his enemy.
The Lanfarnessemen had not remarked on the banner among the other banners: it was not their place to remark on it, but surely they knew what it signified, and perhaps even knew how they had come by it—Pelumer's men, though camping to themselves in scattered bands, had uncommonly thorough knowledge of what had happened in Henas'amef and elsewhere.
Without doubt, they knew why it flew.
Tasmôrden would know.
How northern men would see it he could well guess.
Prudence would have bidden Crissand furl it, or better yet, not to bring it at all; but it would go. Like the Aswydds returning to Henas'amef, that banner would go with him—it belonged to him.
Cefwyn had known, had given him the arms, less the crown, even when he himself failed to know it was, should be, must be—his.
It was not a territory of land that banner claimed; but the rights of the land; it was not a town or a capital it represented, but a Place. A Place for him to exist… a Place that was himself.
He was as he was, in a year which had turned to a new Year, in a land wherein spring much resembled autumn, brown grass, bare trees, a welter of mud, hillside springs gushing full into gullies and turning any low spot to bog.
He had come full circle, but everything was changed. And he was changed. Owl, that mysterious haunt of last year, flitted sometimes in view and came and went in the patchy trees… guiding him, confirming him in his choices, no longer ambiguous, but no prophet, either, of the outcome.
And for very long they went, he and Crissand and Uwen, in the silence of men who had exhausted every thought but the purpose for which they went: sharing that, they had no need for words, only the solidity of each other's company, from the ranks forward. They discussed the condition of gear, the change about of horses, the disposition of a water flask, those things that regarded where things were and how they were, but not where they were going or what might happen there: the one they knew and the other no one could speculate.
It was toward late afternoon when they reached Modeyneth and when they saw the traces of many men in the muddy fields, and the safety of the houses as assured as before, they were glad of the sight, and men began to talk hopefully of a cup of something before they moved on.
Drusenan's wife came out to meet them before they had even reached the hall, treading carefully on a walkway of straw that crossed the hoof-churned mud. Her skirts were muddy about the hems: it was not her first such crossing of that yard; and she came with her sleeves girt up and an apron about her, and it well floured and spattered and stained.
"Lord," she said, "welcome! Will you stay the night?"
"We'll press on," Tristen said, "but an hour to rest the horses, that we can spare, and food for us if you have it."
"Stew and porridge, m'lord, as best as we have, but the pots is most always aboil and nobody knowing when the men's comin' in, we just throw more in, the more as comes to eat it. And there's bread, there's always bread."
That brought a cheer from the front rank to the rearmost, and they were as glad to be down from the saddle as they were of the thick, simple fare in the rush-floored hall, with the dogs vying for attention and the women hurrying about with bowls and bread.
Bows leaned against the wall, near the fire, near the cooking tables, near the door, with quivers of arrows, all the same, all ready, and no man's hand near them: it was the women's defense, if ever the war spilled across the river and beyond the wall.
He was determined it would not.
They sat with Drusenan's lady, for a moment paused in her work, and heard a brisk, fair account of every company that had passed, its numbers, its condition, and the time the women had wished them on their way.
"A tall, dark man, among the rest," Tristen said, for that aspect of the Lord Commander there was no hiding.
"That one, yes," the lady said, "and no lingering. Took a pack of bread and cheese and filled their water flasks, and on they went, being in some great hurry… we didn't mistake 'em, did we? Your Grace isn't after 'em."
"Honest men," Tristen said, "without any question, on honest business."
"It's comin', is it?"
"It won't come here," Tristen said. "Not if we can prevent it, and if the wall can."
"Gods save us," the good woman said, and was afraid, it was no difficulty to know it… afraid not so much for this place, but for Drusenan and the rest. "Gods save Amefel."
"Gods save us all," Uwen echoed her.
"And you and yours," Crissand said quietly.
"We should move," Tristen said, for by her account Idrys' band was early on its way and Cevulirn would have his request to cross and camp. "They won't linger and we shouldn't."
There was not a man of them but would have wished to linger the rest of the hour, but it was down with the remnant left in bowls, and here and there a piece of bread tucked into a jacket, a half cup of ale downed in a gulp, against a hard ride to come, and no sleep but a nap along the way.
Drusenan's lady brought them outside into the dark, she and all the women and the girls, some of them down from the guard post, with their bows. The women saw them onto their horses, with only the light from the open door.
It was muddy going, for the dark and all, and now they had the banners put away and their cloaks close about them. The horses were reluctant, having been given the prospect of a warm stable and that now taken from them: Dys was surly for half an hour, and Cass farther than that, while Crissand's horse and the guards' were entirely out of their high spirits and the horses at lead, those who had carried them all day, plodded.
"Now's the time we look sharp around us," Uwen said to the guards,
"on account of if any man's movin' we're the noisiest."
"The Lord Commander will have told them we're coming," Crissand said, meaning the guard at the wall.
"Beyond any doubt," Tristen said, and now in the dark he did resort ever so gingerly to the gray space, listening to the land around them.
He heard a hare in a thicket, a fox on its nightbound hunt, both aware of the passage of horses on the road.
And Owl was back, with a sudden swoop out of the dark that startled the foremost horses out of their sulking.
"Damn," said Crissand's captain.
"Men are ahead of us," Tristen said, for he gathered that out of the insubstantial wind: indeed men were moving in the same direction, toward the wall. "Don't venture," he said quietly to Crissand, for Crissand had wondered, and fallen right into the wizard-sight, easy as his next breath. "Someone might hear."
"My lord," Crissand said, and ceased.
It was a fair ride farther to the old wall, where Aeself's archers might be, and a dangerous prospect, to come up on archers at night, and with their badges invisible.
Idrys would have come there ahead of them, at least while the light lasted, and indeed forewarned them. But now there were two groups on the road, and Tristen set a moderately quicker pace, chasing that presence of many men in the dark, one a presence he knew.
It was right near the wall he knew that the other presence in the dark was indeed Drumman; and in that sure knowledge he let the gap close. The men ahead had heard them, and slowed, and stopped; and waited warily.
"Owl," Tristen said, and, rarely obedient, Owl obliged him by a close pass, and by flapping heavily about his shoulder. He lifted a hand to brush Owl's talons off his cloak, and drew a little of the light of the gray space to his hand, and to Owl, who flew off, faintly shining, here and there at once.
A murmur arose in the ranks behind, and even the Amefin blessed themselves; but Owl vanished among the trees and came back again, and all the while Tristen had never ceased to ride at the same steady pace.
Drumman knew, now, who commanded Owl, and waited, a line of riders in the dark beyond a small woods, as Owl came back to him, and then found a perch above.
"Lord Drumman," Tristen said.
"My lord duke!" Drumman said. "Well met. I'd feared you were intruders."
"None have crossed that I know," Tristen said, and took Drum-man's offered hand. "But Aeself and his men are along the river, and Cevulirn should have crossed to the Elwynim side. I need you and your men to hold the camp on this side."
"And not cross!" Drumman protested. "We're light horse, well drilled, and well set."
"Then come with us," Tristen said. He had withheld from the lady of Modeyneth their greatest concerns, but to Drumman he told all the truth of Ryssand's action and Idrys' fears as they rode, and by the time the wall darkened the night sky, Drumman understood the worst.
"Beset by his own," Drumman said, as harshly as if he and Crissand's house had never courted rebels or conspired against Cefwyn at all. It was honest indignation… so thoroughly the sentiments of the Amefin had shifted toward the Marhanen and the Lady of Elwynor.
"By his own, and planning to divide Elwynor between Tasmôrden and themselves," Crissand said. "Which is no good for Amefel. We know where Tasmôrden's ambitions would turn next."
"Fine neighbors," Drumman said, above the moving of the horses.
"Fine neighbors they'd be, Ryssand or Tasmôrden. What are we to do?"
"Come at the enemy in Ilefínian and reach them before Cefwyn does," Tristen said, but in his heart was Idrys' fear, a traitor nearer Cefwyn than the ones they and Cefwyn already knew. Distance mattered in wizardry and Cefwyn being the point on which the whole eastern assault turned, he had no doubt all the wizardry of their enemy was bent on his overthrow.
They reached the wall, that reared dark and absolute across the road, with gates shut and the will of Lord Drusenan to defend it. It made him think of the maps, and how there was, along the riverside, the village of Anas Mallorn, and other small holdings scattered along the wedge of land before the rock, and all that way Idrys had to go, if he had not found a boat ready and able to take him on the water.
Yet Drusenan's men had long carried on a secret commerce with Elwynor.
A challenge came down to them as they reached the gates, a sharp,
"Who goes there?"
"His Grace of Amefel!" Crissand shouted up. "Meiden and Lord Drumman! Open up!"
"Open the gates!" came down from above them.
Then a second voice, Drusenan's: "Welcome, my lord, to our wall!
Welcome to the defense of Amefel!"
There was a brisk rub for the horses, and a welcome cup and pallets for a nap for the men, but for the lords, no rest—it was straight to a close council in the restored gatehouse of the wall, warm and lit with a small, double-wicked oil lamp.
In that place they took their cups of ale, declined food, for that they had already had, and spread out the map they brought from Henas'amef.
"The men you sent went through, never stopping but to say you were coming," Drusenan said, "which is as much as we know, my lord."
"Was a tall man with them?"
"A grim fellow, yes, my lord."
"And left with them."
"Went with them, my lord, and all of them pressing hard. And they had the bands, every man of them."
There was no more, then, that he could do, and they nursed their cups of ale over small matters of supply and intent until the bottom of the cup, and then a brief, a desperate attempt at sleep and rest.
But Owl was abroad, still, and when Tristen shut his eyes he found himself in dizzying flight, wheeling above the darkened river, where a bridge stood completed, and men crossed by night.
Owl flew farther, and skimmed almost to the water, and up again, where the rocks rose sheer above the river.
Then back again, where a boat traveled under sail, and a dark man looked out from the prow, restless and worried. He traveled alone, that man, having left the guard behind. He was bidden rest on deck, but he could not sleep, and scanned the dark and rugged shore as the face of an enemy.
It was very far for Idrys to travel, even yet.
Owl flew on, and on, and swept his vision past hills to east and north, and Cefwyn's camp was there, hundreds of tents, all set in orderly rows. He wished Owl to turn and show him Cefwyn, Owl veered off across the land, far, far, far, toward the east, Tristen thought, where the Quinaltine stood, where Efanor kept watch.
Of a sudden Owl turned, veered back again in a course so rapid the stars blurred and the world became dark, became the river, dark water, and cold.
Something was abroad in the night. Owl fled it, and that was never Owl's inclination. For a long time Tristen had nothing in his sight but the ragged, raw cliffs and stony upthrusts of the hills, and then the gentler land of shepherds and orchards, laid bare of snow. The enemy hunted, hunted, pursued.
Fly, he wished Owl, for what stirred northward was aware of him, now, and turned attention toward him.
Well and good. Best it come to him. He wished it to turn to him, see him, assess what he was, with all the dangers inherent in the encounter. He abandoned stealth. He challenged the Shadow to the north, taunted it, all the while with fear in his heart… for in that way he had learned there were things older than himself, this was, indeed, older.
This was Hasufin, but it was more.
It was the Wind, and a dark Wind, and it had carried Hasufin and carried his soul still, but it was more than that: it had always lurked behind the veil, and now stood naked to the dark, the very heart of menace.
For a long, long while, his heart beating hard, he stared into that dark, having lost all reckoning of Owl.
But then something flew very near, and Owl called him urgently, reft him away as the thin sound broke the threads of the dream.
He plummeted to earth, aware of his own body again, and Drum-man and Uwen sleeping beside him.
But on his other side Crissand was awake, at the very threshold of the gray space. Crissand had felt the danger, and tried to oppose it.
My lord? Crissand whispered.
Be still, he said. Be very quiet. Something's looking this way.
What? Crissand wanted to know, and then turned his face toward the danger.
Back! Tristen ordered him, and snatched them both from the gray winds before it could come near.
"A wizard," Crissand said in a low and tremulous voice.
"I'm not sure," Tristen said, knowing in his heart it was nothing so ordinary, that long ago something had entangled itself with Hasufin Heltain, as Hasufin had attempted to ensnare Orien Aswydd, and Aséyneddin in Elwynor.
Then it Unfolded to him with shattering force that this was indeed so, and that Mauryl himself had feared it.
This… this was in Hasufin's heart.
It was not dispelled at Lewenbrook. It had not been dispelled in hundreds of years. It had only retreated. It was in the depths of the Quinal-tine. It was in every deep, dark place the Galasieni themselves had warded, and Hasufin had bargained with it, listened to it, welcomed it in his folly.
He had no choice but draw its attention to himself, now, for Cefwyn's only defense was his blindness to magic and wizardry alike… and blindness was not enough, not against something with such ready purchase in Ryssand's heart.
"I wish Idrys may hurry," Tristen whispered into the dark, hearing Owl call again, and a third time, magical three. "I wish the winds behind him, and I wish he may come in time."
"So all of us wish," Crissand said, and fear touched his voice. "I saw a Shadow. Does it threaten the king?"
"It threatens everything," Tristen said, and could not bid Crissand avoid it: could not bid any one of his friends avoid it. It was why they had come, why they pressed forward, why they had gone to war at all, and everything was at risk. "But sleep. Sleep now, while we dare sleep at all."
Previous: CHAPTER 6
Next: INTERLUDE