Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 7
Book main: Foreword

The battering of the doors gave way to a crash of wood, a clump and a clatter on the stairs, and a worried shout.
"M'lord!" Uwen called, and came running up the steps, shield scraping on the stones, his face white and sweating: it was a far run in armor, but up he came, with Tristen's guard and Crissand's thumping behind him, onto the upper floor of the fortress.
"It's gone," Tristen said, meeting him in that unfamiliar hallway, and such was the relief he felt in saying it that the sky outside the windows seemed lightened. Crissand was beside him. There, too, was a glad reunion, Crissand with his father's guard and their captain.
"The lightnin' cracked an' the sky was blowin' somethin' fierce,"
Uwen said, out of breath. "But then we said that you was in there an'
b' gods them gates was comin' down."
Just so he could imagine Uwen saying it: those great, well-set gates.
"With a ram," Crissand's captain said, "since there was this great old tree gone down in the wood's edge. The lads spied it and we had the limbs off it and up and took it against the gate."
"But the guards at the gate was confused in the banners," Uwen said,
"Tasmôrden claimin' the same device. They fell to arguin' amongst themselves whether it was Tasmôrden back again rammin' 'is own gates, or what it all meant… which he's outside the walls, m'lord, somewhere! But Aeself's goin' through the town, street to street, now, tellin' all the folk that it's yourself, m'lord, that it's Amefel come across the river, and they should hunt out the blackguards that's left."
There was a sudden tumult of arms within the halls, somewhere close.
"Our own," Uwen said pridefully. "Them bandits o' Tasmôrden's is goin''t' ground an' hopin' for dark. They're outnumbered by far."
The gray space was open again. It was as if with the passing of the Shadow within the fortress that the sky and the land had lightened and spread wide, and Tristen could both hear and see again within the gray space. And the lords of the south he perceived. And the skirmish in the hall he perceived, and the living folk in the town, with Aeself among them. Cefwyn's forces he perceived.
But Tasmôrden he could not find.
"Cefwyn's east and south of us," he said. "We have to tell him we're here." He led the way down the stairs, down to the lower hall of a fortress he had never entered by its proper doors. Its walls were stone unplastered in its upper courses, and its floor pavings smoothed more by age than art.
And the wooden doors stood ajar, the bright wounds of the wood and a bar standing askew attesting how force and a stone bench had gained entry for his men.
He set a hand on Uwen's shoulder, grateful beyond measure, and they went outside, where Lord Cevulirn stood on the steps with Umanon of Imor Lenúalim, directing riders who occupied the walled courtyard.
"The lost are found," Cevulirn said, seeing them, and Tristen came and embraced the man, embraced stiff and proper Lord Umanon as well, and then had the dizzy notion that hereafter he truly did not know why he lived, or what he should do, or where he belonged. It was as if all that directed him had left, and when he stood back from Umanon he looked outward across the open courtyard, to the open doors, and the walls of houses of a town he had never seen.
He was still lost. Owl had flown up when he came out the doors, and settled now on an absently offered wrist as he gazed over all this motion and tumult of men who took his commands and sought his advice.
But Cevulirn and Umanon knew the governance of a people far better than he knew; Uwen knew the ordering of soldiers in far more detail than he. Crissand knew the needs of the countryfolk far better than he. He looked out across the square and saw Sovrag of Olmern with his men, and Lord Pelumer with him, saw all this array of martial power set now amid a town that had been in the grip of a bandit lord, and saw what appeared to be the common people venturing to the gate, to look inside and wonder what had come on them now.
He knew where he did not belong.
Emuin? Master Emuin? he asked, anxious for the old man, for Paisi and Ninévrisë and Lusin and all he had left behind; and an answer came to him, at least that master Emuin's charts were in an irresolvable muddle and that baskets and pots and powders were strewn everywhere.
But Emuin was alive, and so was Paisi, and so was Ninévrisë, and they could be here, if they chose. He invited them, if they chose…
Eeave Lusin in charge, he said, and showed Emuin the way.
"Where's Dys?" he asked, for he longed to find that other heart he could not touch at a distance: he relied on Uwen, and on Crissand, and sure enough, now his guard had found him, Gweyl and the rest, and would not be shaken lightly from his tracks. "Cefwyn's out there."
"Ye ought to send a messenger, m'lord," Uwen said. "Ye ought to sit here safe and send one of these lads."
"But I won't," Tristen said, with the least rise of mirth. "You know that I won't."
"As I ain't the captain of Amefel any longer," Uwen said, "I can shake free an' ride with ye; an' as your guards has to go, though probably ye can call the lightnin' down on any leavin's of Tasmor-den's lot… still we'll go, m'lord."
Idrys' men had gone out, probing toward Ilefínian, and came back again to say there was a strange assortment of banners before riders on the road: the black banner of the High Kings that Tasmor-den had claimed, in company with the Tower and Checker of the Regent and the Eagle of Amefel, with two and three others less clear to the observers.
"Tristen," was Idrys' pronouncement, where they had established not a camp, but a staying place on the hilltop, under the open sky, a place for dressing wounds and collecting the army in order. "Did I not say this egg would hatch?" Idrys asked. And Cefwyn finding no word:
"What shall we do, my lord king?"
What indeed should they do? Cefwyn asked himself somberly. Go to war with Tristen? Call a battered Guelen army to take the field against the friend of his heart, who had claimed that banner?
"Bring Danvy up," Cefwyn said, looking out and down the hill.
Close after the battle, two of Anwyll's men had found Anwyll climbing uphill with Kanwy in hand and a handful of the company behind him, but Kanwy had a wound and was due a rest: it was his light horse that would serve now, for a short ride and a meeting.
"What shall we do?" Idrys repeated his question, hammering it home.
"Do? I think I shall meet my friend and hope for my lady's safety at his hands."
"Hope?" Idrys echoed him. "Is hope what we have, now? Nothing of faith? The hatchling's spread wings, my lord king, and it's no damned pigeon we deal with."
Cefwyn gave a wry and silent laugh. "A dragon. A dragon, master crow. But he is still my friend."
Idrys said nothing for a moment, only gazed at him as if in reproach.
Then: "He was still your friend when he sent me to the Olmernmen.
He was still your friend when he marched, and he leads those who are my lord king's sworn men, but now, now there is a question."
"What should I do?" Cefwyn repeated. "If you have any notion, crow, out with it."
"Demand," Idrys said. "Impose. Insist, my lord king. You owe the kingdom that."
"The kingdom." The ache had settled hard into his body. Even drawing a deep breath hurt, and he swept a glance about him, at those who had been faithful, whatever their reasons… some even for love of him. He looked at that, rather than the betrayals, but not wholly successfully. "He has the knack of gaining love. That's to envy."
"My lord king has those who love him."
He glanced at Idrys, catching something perhaps by surprise. He did not know why, after all else, he was embarrassed to catch Idrys thus unaware. But he pretended to have looked elsewhere, for both their sakes, and folded his arms. "Horses."
"My lord king," Idrys said, and relayed the order to a page, who called a groom, who called his assistants, for where the king of Ylesuin went was no small number.
Riven trees marked the battle in the elements, a trail of splintered trunks and wrecked limbs, bright wood through the leafless forest; so Tristen saw as they rode. The limbs were bare as those in Mama's depths, where the wood wound around the end of the ridge.
But there color bloomed, the bright red Marhanen banner, and the Tower and Checker of the lady Regent, and so they came within sight one of the other.
Tristen set Dys to a faster pace, and rode ahead of his banners and those who chased after him; so did the king of Ylesuin, and they met under the afternoon shadow of the ridge, slid down from their horses and embraced as friends too long parted.
"High King, is it?" Cefwyn asked, setting Tristen at arm's length.
And it was a question Tristen had to answer, but not in few words.
Ninévrisë had come with Emuin: he knew that while he rode. It was brave of them, but arrive they had, by the old mews, and Tarien with them, for Ninévrisë would not leave Tarien or the baby behind in Henas'amef. There was one Aswydd who ruled there, and it was neither of them.
"Emuin's come," Tristen did say. "And Her Grace. Not by the road, by the old mews. And Crissand's the aetheling, which I don't want to be."
"What do you wish?" Cefwyn asked him, and he knew the seriousness of that question, as he knew the significance of the banner he could not set aside.
"To ride with my friends and see the summer again," he said, which was indeed the best thing in the world to him. In the gray space Emuin might say the banner had to fly, and Owl was surly and insistent, winging constantly toward Ynefel, but he was determined not to stay there, nor at Althalen, where the frail wooden tower still stood.
"Come to Ilefínian," he asked Cefwyn. "Owl wants me to come with him, but I won't, yet. There are things I don't know yet. There are things I haven't seen." A crown and the duties of a king were not at all within his longing: rather escape from both was what he plotted, escape for him, and the freedom of the kingdoms and the kings and lords to live in peace. A king over all could be a king in name, but the rulers of the lands had to live there.
A bough had broken its buds, the least small hint of gold and green, recalling whole forests that sighed and moved with the breezes.
Spring and promises: everything was new and old at once. Tristen saw it with wonder and saw the pledge of the summer to come, green grass and gentle winds.
A child danced before them, as they rode back to Ilefínian. Cefwyn and Uwen neither one could see her, but Tristen and Crissand did.
Previous: CHAPTER 7
Book main: Foreword