PART ONE: THE ROAD HOME
Winter is settling on the land, Uncle Mather, but somehow, fittingly, it
seems quiet and soft, as if the season will be gentle this year, as if
Nature herself, like all the folk of the land, is in need of respite. I do
not know how I recognize that this will prove true, but I cannot deny that
which my ranger instincts tell me. Perhaps it is just that I am in need of
respite, Uncle Mather, and I know that Pony is, as well. Perhaps my belief
that the season will be gentle is no more than hopeful thinking.
Still, Pony, Juraviel, and I heard few reports of fighting, even of any
sightings of goblins, powries, or giants all during our return trip from
St.-Mere-Abelle. Our journey north from Palmaris to the sister towns of
Caer Tinella and Landsdown was without incident, with the only substantial
garrison in the region being a contingent of Kingsmen sent from Ursal to
reinforce Palmaris. They subsequently struck out north of the city to help
secure the resettlement of the handful of communities in the region north
of Palmaris' farms.
We have heard of few skirmishes in the weeks since our arrival; mostly it
has been quiet, comfortably so. Tomas Gingerwart, who leads the three
hundred daring settlers, and Shamus Kilronney, captain of the Kingsmen
brigade, speak hopefully of a return to normalcy by the time winter
relinquishes its grip on the land.
A return to normalcy?
They do not understand. Many have died, but many will be born to take
their places; many homes have been burned to the ground, but they will be
rebuilt. And so in the coming months the region may outwardly resemble
what we once knew as our "normal" lives.
But I have trod this road before, Uncle Mather, after the first sacking of
Dundalis--before I came to know the Touel'alfar, before I found you--and I
know the scars of this war will be lasting. It is in the hearts of the
survivors where the mark of the demon dactyl will remain, in the grief of
those who lost friends and family, the shock of those displaced, the pain
of those who return to their former villages to find a blackened field.
Though they do not yet know it, the very definition of what is normal has
changed. The aftermath of war may be more painful than the fighting itself.
Would I see the world the same way had the goblins not come to Dundalis
those years ago? Not only was the course of my life changed by my rescue
by the Touel'alfar and the training they gave me, but so were my
perspectives on reality itself--my view of duty, of community, even of
mortality, that greatest of human mysteries.
And so these people are changed in ways they do not yet understand.
My greatest concern is for Pony. The first destruction of Dundalis--of
which she and I were the only survivors and in which her entire family was
slaughtered--nearly broke her, sent her careening down a road that led her
to Palmaris and a new life, one in which she could not even remember her
tragic past. Only the love of her adoptive parents saw her through that
dark time; and now they, too, have become victims of evil. Tragedy has
visited Pony again.
When we ran out of St.-Mere-Abelle, our mission there complete, our friend
Bradwarden freed, she nearly turned around and went back. Had she
re-entered that structure, gemstones in hand, she would have wreaked
devastation before meeting her ultimate end.
And she didn't care, Uncle Mather, for herself or for those she might have
killed. So blind was her rage at the discovery of the mutilated corpses of
her dead adoptive parents that she was ready to destroy St.-Mere-Abelle
and all in it, to destroy all the world, I fear, in one mighty outpouring
She has been quiet since we left the abbey and crossed the Masur Delaval
into lands more familiar. Setting Belster O'Comely in place as the new
proprietor of Fellowship Way has helped to calm her, I believe, helped her
to find a bit of "normalcy" in her life once more.
But I fear for her and must watch over her.
For myself, I know not what the lasting emotional effects of this latest
struggle will be. As with all the survivors, I will grow from the losses,
will find new insights as I contemplate the nearness of death. I hold few
fears now. Somehow, amid all the carnage, I have found an inner peace. I
know not what waits after death, Uncle Mather, and I know that I cannot
A simple, foolish sentence that sounds, and yet it strikes my heart and
soul as a profound revelation. What I understand now is the inevitability
of death, whether through battle, disease, or simply age. And because I
understand and accept that, I no longer fear life. How strange that is! It
seems to me now that no problem is too daunting and no obstacle too
imposing, for all that I have to do is remind myself that one day I will
be no more, that my body is ultimately food for the worms, and I am not
afraid to try. Many times recently I have been asked to stand before
hundreds of men and women and explain to them the course I think we should
all follow. And while to many people--to a younger Elbryan, perhaps--that
would have been uncomfortable--fearing how the audience might view my
words, fearing that I would do something foolish, like trip and fall down
before them all--now that nervousness seems a petty, stupid thing. All I
need do when so asked is to remind myself that one day it will not matter,
that one day I will be gone from this world, that one day, centuries
hence, someone might find my bones--and the embarrassing stumble, should
it ever happen, seems like little to fear indeed.
So the land is at peace, and Elbryan is at peace, and greater indeed will
that peace become if I can find a way to calm Pony's emotional turmoil.
Chapter 1: Passion for Life
The room was dark, the curtains drawn, but the ranger could see the gray
of the predawn sky around their lace-trimmed edges. Instinctively he
reached behind him, seeking the comforting, warm feel of his lover's body,
but she was not there.
Elbryan rolled over, surprised. Pony was not in the bed, nor even in the
room, he realized as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. With a groan, for he
was not accustomed to sleeping in any bed, let alone a soft one--and this
one was especially pillowy, for the folk of the towns had given the ranger
the finest bed in Caer Tinella--Elbryan rolled off the bed to his feet,
straightened, and stretched. He went to the window, noting that Pony's
fine sword was not beside his own. That did not alarm him, though; as he
came more fully awake, he could guess easily enough where she was.
When he pulled aside the curtains, he found that it was later than he had
believed. The sky was thick with gray clouds, but he could tell that the
top half of the sun was already peeking over the horizon. And the days
this time of year were shortest of all, for they were now in the month of
Decambria, the twelfth and last, and the winter solstice was less than
three weeks away.
A scan of the forest north of the town showed the ranger the expected
firelight. He went through a series of slow, exaggerated movements then,
sliding low to the floor then back up, arms wide stretching, as he
limbered up his six-foot three-inch, two-hundred-and-ten-pound, muscular
frame. Then he pulled on his clothes and cloak quickly, wanting to join
his love, and took up the magnificent Tempest, his elven-forged sword, the
sword of his uncle Mather, the emblem of his position as ranger.
His room was on the northern edge of town, as he had requested, and so he
saw few of the townsfolk as he rushed away--past a corral and the skeletal
remnant of the barn he and Juraviel had burned on one escape from the
monsters who had previously held Caer Tinella--and out into the forest.
A blanket of snow had settled thickly about the region only a week ago,
but the weather had turned warmer since then. Now a low fog clung above
the ground, blurring the trails, hiding the leafless branches. But the
ranger knew the small, sheltered field he and Pony had chosen for their
morning ritual: the elven sword dance, bi'nelle dasada.
He came upon her quietly, both not wanting to disturb her and also to
glimpse her at the dance in its truest form.
And then he saw her and his heart was softened, and all his body felt warm.
She was naked, her feminine frame veiled only by the morning mists, her
strong muscles glistening as they moved through the perfectly balanced
interplay of bi'nelle dasada, weaving a wondrous dance of balance and
motion. Elbryan could hardly believe how much he loved her, how much the
sight of her thrilled and moved him. Her thick blond hair was longer now,
reaching several inches below her shoulders and trailing her with every
turn, as the sparkle of her blue eyes seemed to lead her. She held
Defender, a fine, slender sword, its silverel blade shining in the dull
morning light or sparkling suddenly with an orange flare whenever it
caught the reflection of the campfire she had lit nearby.
The ranger crouched and continued to admire her, thinking it ironic, for
it used to be Pony who spied on him at bi'nelle dasada in the days when
she desired to learn the intricacies of the dance. How well she had
studied! His admiration was twofold--one part of him impressed by the
beauty of her movements, the level of harmony she had achieved in so short
a time, and the other based in simple lust. He and Pony had not been
intimate in several weeks, not since before the end of summer on the road
to St.-Mere-Abelle to rescue Bradwarden, when she had unexpectedly broken
their vow of abstinence and seduced him. Elbryan had tried to repeat that
passionate scene several times since, but Pony had steadfastly refused.
Looking at her now, he was nearly overwhelmed. Her allure was undeniable,
the smoothness of her skin, the soft curves of her honed body, the
movements of her hips, her legs, so shapely and strong. Elbryan could not
imagine anyone more beautiful or enticing. He realized that he was
breathing more heavily, that he was suddenly very warm--and though the day
was not cold for the season, the air was surely not warm!
Embarrassed, feeling then that he was invading Pony's privacy, the ranger
pushed the lustful thoughts from his mind and fell fully into the
meditative calm afforded him by his years of discipline with the
Touel'alfar. Soon he left Elbryan Wyndon behind, taking on the calm
attitude of Nightbird, the warrior title given him by the elves.
He untied his cloak and let it fall to the ground, then quietly pulled off
the rest of his clothing. Taking Tempest in hand, he walked from the
brush. So deep in concentration was Pony that she did not notice his
approach until he was within a stride of her. She turned to face him,
startled, and did not match his smile with her own.
Her expression, jaw set firm and blue eyes blazing intently, caught
Nightbird off guard. He was even more surprised when Pony moved suddenly,
throwing her sword into the ground near his feet so forcefully that its
tip dug inches into the hardened earth.
"I--I did not mean to disturb you," the ranger stammered, at a loss, for
he and Pony had shared bi'nelle dasada for weeks, had sword-danced
together since he had taught it to her, the two working as one that they
might bring their fighting styles and movements into perfect harmony.
Also, both of them had come to substitute the sword dance for a different
form of intimacy, the one that they had agreed they could not now share.
Pony did not reply, except to halve the distance between them, staring up
at him, breathing hard, sweat glistening on her neck and shoulders.
"I will leave if you desire," the ranger started to say, but was cut short
as Pony reached up suddenly, grabbing the hair on the back of his head,
moving her body against his, and pulling his face down, while she came up
on tiptoe, locking him in a hungry kiss.
Tempest still in hand, the ranger's arms went around her, but loosely,
unsure where this might be heading.
Pony showed no signs of relenting, her kiss growing more passionate,
hungrier, with each passing second. The meditative state was long gone
from Elbryan; no more was he the elven warrior. Still, he kept his wits
about him enough finally to push Pony back a bit, to break the kiss and
stare at her questioningly. For though they had proclaimed their love for
each other openly, though they were--in the eyes of all who knew them; in
their hearts; and truly, they believed, in the eyes of God--husband and
wife, they had vowed to abstain from marital relations for fear that Pony,
whose duties were no less demanding and dangerous than Elbryan's, would
Elbryan started to ask Pony about that pact of abstinence, but she
interrupted him with a growl. She reached over and pulled Temptest from
his grasp and threw the sword to the ground, then went back at Elbryan,
locking him in a deep kiss, her hands roaming about his back, and then
Elbryan hadn't the strength to protest. He wanted Pony so very badly,
loved Pony so very deeply. Still locked in the passionate kiss, she slid
down to the ground, pulling her lover atop her. The ranger wanted this
moment to last, wanted to savor the beauty of lovemaking with Pony, so he
tried to slow things down.
Pony roughly pushed him over onto his back and chased him all the way,
urgently, hungrily, growling with every determined movement. Then they
were joined and all was motion and sound. The stunned Elbryan fought hard
to remove his thoughts from the tumult, trying to make some sense of it
all. Always before, their lovemaking had been gentle and warm, full of
words and teasing caresses. Now, it was physical, even angry; and the
grunting, growling sounds escaping Pony's lips were as filled with rage as
with desire. Elbryan knew and understood that she wasn't angry with him,
but rather that she was releasing her anger at all the world through him.
This was her release from, or denial of, all the horror and pain. And so
Elbryan allowed her to lead him in this most intimate of dances, tried to
give her what she most needed from him, both physically and emotionally.
Even when they were done, wrapped in Pony's cloak and in each other's arms
near the small fire, there was no conversation, no questions. Too
overwhelmed and too consumed by the physical release to press the issue,
Elbryan dozed off, and was only half aware when Pony slipped from his
He awakened barely minutes later, to see Pony sitting in the middle of the
small field beside their weapons, with Elbyran's cloak pulled tightly
about her. He studied the faraway look in her eyes, the glisten of a tear
on her soft cheek.
Elbryan looked up at the empty grayness of the sky, as confused as he had
been when Pony had locked him in that first kiss. And she was even more
confused than he, he realized. He decided that he would wait patiently for
his answers, would let her come to him.
When she was ready.
An hour later, when Elbryan returned to Caer Tinella, the town was
bustling with activity. The ranger came back alone, for Pony had left him
on the field without a word. She had kissed him tenderly though, perhaps
in apology, perhaps merely to assure him that she was all right. Elbryan
had accepted that kiss as explanation enough for the present, for to him
no apology was needed; but no matter what Pony did or said it would not
alleviate his fears for her. Their lovemaking that morning had been
necessary for Pony, comforting and freeing, but the ranger knew that the
demons within his lover had not been exorcised.
He was worrying about her, wondering what more he could do to help her, as
he walked to his appointment with Tomas Gingerwart.
Though Elbryan arrived early, Tomas was already waiting for him in the
centrally located barn that served as the town's meeting hall. Tomas was a
hardy man, not very tall but stocky and hardened from years of farming. He
rose and extended his hand to Elbryan; the ranger clasped it noting that
Tomas' hand was rough and his grip strong. Elbryan realized that in all
the weeks he had known Tomas, this was the first time they had shared a
handshake. And Tomas had a wide smile--another rarity--on his dark face.
Tomas' plans were in motion, the ranger realized.
"How fares Nightbird this fine day?" Tomas asked.
"Well, I would guess," Tomas said lightly. "Your beautiful companion came
through town only a few minutes before you, and from the same
direction--from the northern forest." Tomas offered a wink as he finished,
a good-natured gesture and not lewd, but Elbryan returned it with a scowl.
"The caravan has been sponsored," Tomas declared, clearing his throat and
changing the subject. "If it wasn't so late in the year, we could depart
in a few weeks."
"We must be certain that winter's grip on the land is ended," Elbryan
"We?" Tomas asked with a smile. Ever since Elbryan and Pony had joined him
in Caer Tinella, Tomas had been trying to persuade Nightbird to join his
Timberlands-bound caravan, but the ranger had been elusive and had not
committed to the journey. Tomas had pressed him hard, but fairly, though
some of the sponsoring merchants would not provide their money and
supplies unless the ranger agreed to lead the way.
Elbryan looked at the hopeful, crooked grin on the weatherworn face of
Tomas Gingerwart and recognized that the man was his friend. "I will
accompany you," he confirmed. "Dundalis was my home, and Pony's as well,
and I believe that we have as great a stake in its rebuilding as any."
"But what of your duties to the Kingsmen?" Tomas asked. It was no secret
that Nightbird had been working with Shamus Kilronney, captain of the
Kingsmen brigade, to ensure the security of the land. Shamus and the
ranger had become friends, so it was rumored, and Pony was reportedly even
closer to the man.
"Captain Kilronney is convinced that the region is secure," Elbryan
explained. "Pony spoke with him yesterday--and might again be with him
this morning, discussing his plans for returning his brigade to the south."
Tomas nodded, but he was obviously not thrilled with the news of the
soldiers' impending departure.
"She is trying to convince the captain to remain a bit longer," Elbryan
went on, "perhaps through the winter, and even to accompany us farther to
the north in the spring. No doubt the King desires the reopening of the
Timberlands as soon as possible."
"He does indeed," Tomas replied. "The merchant Comli, my chief sponsor, is
a personal friend of King Danube Brock Ursal. Comli would not be so eager
to press north unless he was certain of the King's desire to reopen trade
with the Timberlands."
It all seemed perfectly logical to both men. During the war, many sailing
ships had been lost or damaged by powrie barrelboats, and the only timber
large enough to replace masts came from the appropriately named
Timberlands, the land of Dundalis, Weedy Meadow, and End-o'-the-World.
"Perhaps Comli's emissary should also speak with Captain Kilronney," the
Tomas nodded. "I will see to it," he promised. "Glad I am to have
Nightbird and Pony along on this dangerous journey, and every sword we can
enlist will be a welcome addition. I need not explain my fears to you, for
we both understand that no one has yet determined the extent of the
retreat of the demon dactyl's army. We might strike out to the north only
to find ten thousand goblins, giants, and powries camped by the roadside,
singing their songs of cruelty and torture!"
Elbryan managed to smile at that, for he did not believe the words for a
moment. There might indeed be monsters up there, but not on the scale to
which Tomas alluded--not with the binding force, the physical
manifestation of the demon dactyl, destroyed.
"I only wish that Roger Lockless were here and could journey with us,"
"Belster will find him if he has returned to Palmaris," Elbryan assured
him. When Elbryan and Pony had passed through Palmaris on their return
from St.-Mere-Abelle, they had not only established Belster as the new
proprietor of Fellowship Way but also had charged him with finding Roger
and telling the young man of their latest movements once he returned from
his trip with Baron Rochefort Bildeborough to speak with the King. The
ranger did not doubt that Roger would rush back to Caer Tinella to join
him and Pony as soon as his duties to the Baron were ended.
"I hope he returns before the beginning of Bafway," Tomas said, "for the
start of the third month marks the start of our journey, unless the
weather turns against us. It might be that the road will stay clear enough
for him to get to us, if the weather holds."
Elbryan nodded, noting the tension on the man's face. Tomas was eager to
go north, as were many others, but they were all taking this unseasonable
weather too much to heart. The end of Calember had brought a fall of snow,
but that had been almost completely melted by many days of warmer weather.
It was important--to the King of Honce-the-Bear, to the Baron of Palmaris,
to the merchants, and to men like Tomas--that once the Timberlands was
free of monsters, men from Honce-the-Bear be the ones to resettle it and
restore the timber trade. The Timberlands was the only area that could
supply the needed logs for ships' masts. By treaty, the Timberlands was
not ruled by any of the three kingdoms--Honce-the-Bear, Behren, or rugged
Alpinador--but it had always served the King and merchants of
Honce-the-Bear well to have the region populated predominantly by their
own. Rumors had come to Caer Tinella recently that the Alpinadorans meant
to settle the deserted Timberlands, and while none feared that such a
development would stop the trade in the large trees, all realized that it
would make the merchants of Honce-the-Bear pay more dearly.
Elbryan had not been able to confirm those rumors and, in fact, believed
that they might be merely a plant by Comli or some other fearful merchant
to spur the caravan northward sooner. But the ranger couldn't argue
against the logic of getting back to the north. And aside from the
practical considerations, there were personal ones. His father, Olwan
Wyndon, had gone to Dundalis to live on the frontier, to tread places
where no man had been, to view sights never seen by any man. Olwan Wyndon
had taken great pride in his decision to go north and had become the
unofficial leader of Dundalis.
Before the darkness awakened.
It was also near Dundalis, in a sheltered grove, that Elbryan had found
the grave of Mather, his long-lost uncle--the elven-trained ranger who had
come before him--and where he had earned Tempest, once Mather's sword. And
in the forest near Dundalis, Elbryan had met Bradwarden the centaur, a
dear friend now returned to him, it seemed, from the grave itself. And in
that same forest, Bradwarden had introduced Elbryan to the magnificent
black stallion, Symphony, the ranger's mount, the ranger's friend.
His ties to the region were deeply rooted. Now he felt a duty to his dead
father and family to go back and help rebuild Dundalis and the other two
towns, then to serve as their protector, the quiet and little-seen ranger
vigilantly patrolling the forest.
"Word has it that new settlers of the northern land are to be well
rewarded," Tomas remarked.
Elbryan looked at him carefully, noted how he rubbed his hands together.
If Tomas wanted to go to the Timberlands to make his fortune, then Elbryan
knew the man was in for a great disappointment. The life there was hard.
Hunting, fishing, foraging, and farming were necessary as well as the
trade in wood. No, a man did not settle in the Timberlands to get wealthy;
he settled there to live in a freedom that could not be found anywhere
else. Tomas could speak of being "well rewarded," but Tomas would learn,
if he did not already know, that those rewards came from more than the
"We get ahead of practical thinking," Elbryan remarked. "Resettling
Dundalis and the other towns depends upon whether or not the monsters have
deserted the region. If they are still encamped, it will take more than
the four score you mean to bring north to unseat them."
"That is why we asked Nightbird to lead us," Tomas said with a wink, "and
"And that is why Pony is trying to convince Captain Kilronney to stay in
Caer Tinella through the winter and then to come with us," Elbryan
replied. "Let us hope that he agrees."
"And let us hope that he and his soldiers will not be needed," Tomas added
"Ah, Jilseponie, how sad I am to see that the light is out of your eyes."
The melodic voice from above did not startle Pony, for she had suspected
that Belli'mar Juraviel was about. She had chosen to come to this forested
area south of Caer Tinella because it afforded her a view of the distant
Kingsmen encampment and also with some hope of finding the elf, for
Juraviel had been away for several days, scouting the southern roads. That
morning, after Pony had crossed Caer Tinella, a group of Palmaris'
garrison soldiers had ridden down the road past her as she moved quietly
through the shadows under the trees. The riders had already come from the
village, she realized, and they were headed straight for the Kingsmen camp.
"How long will clouds fill your eyes?" Juraviel asked, fluttering his
nearly translucent wings to settle on a branch at her eye level. "When
will you let the sun sparkle in them again, that those around you might
glory in the reflections?"
"I was thinking about my family," Pony replied. "When I lost my mother and
father in Dundalis, I lost all memories and thoughts of them for years. I
would not have that happen to my memories of Graevis and Pettibwa."
"But you were young then," said Juraviel, to offer some hope to the
beleaguered woman. "Too young to comprehend such tragedy, and so you let
the tragedy pass out of your thoughts. Too young."
"Perhaps I still am."
"But ..." the elf started to protest, but he saw that Pony didn't blink,
just kept looking absently toward the Kingsmen encampment. How sad for
this young woman, who had lived for only a quarter of a century, to have
lost two families! Looking at her now, Juraviel feared that her beautiful
face would never brighten again.
"Tell me of the soldiers who rode in this morn," Pony bade the elf
"Palmaris garrison," Juraviel replied, "riding hard. I shadowed them and
hoped to listen to their conversation, but they did not stop or slow, and
I heard not a single exchange of words."
Pony chewed her lip, staring at the distant encampment, and Juraviel
understood her concern. Had these soldiers come to tell the Kingsmen that
she and Elbryan were outlaws?
"Baron Bildeborough is a friend," Juraviel reminded her. "Your horse and
sword are proof enough of that, even if you doubt Roger's judgment."
"I do not," Pony was quick to reply. Juraviel's point hit home; Baron
Bildeborough was no friend of the Abellican Church, certainly. And
Bildeborough had shown great faith in Roger by giving him Greystone and
Defender, the horse and sword Roger had passed on to Pony.
"These soldiers are for the Baron, not the Church," Juraviel went on. "And
with Baron Bildeborough now understanding that it was a man of the Church
who murdered his beloved nephew--apparently with the blessings, even
orders, of the Church hierarchy--he'll not take their side against you and
Elbryan. No matter the promises of the Abellican Church leaders or the
pressures from the King of Honce-the-Bear."
"Agreed," said Pony, and she turned to regard the elf. "But did you get a
good look at the riders? Might Roger have been with them?"
"Only soldiers," Juraviel assured her, and he did not miss the cloud that
passed over her fair face. "It is possible that Roger has not yet returned
to Palmaris from Ursal."
"I only hoped," Pony replied.
"You fear for him? He is in the company of a powerful man," Juraviel
pointed out, for they had been informed that Roger had gone to Ursal with
Baron Bildeborough to speak with King Danube Brock Ursal himself. "Few on
the western side of the Masur Delaval north of Ursal wield as much power
and influence as Baron Rochefort Bildeborough."
"Except perhaps for the new abbot of St. Precious."
"But his power is just that," Juraviel replied, "new. Baron Bildeborough
holds the superior position, for he has been entrenched in Palmaris for
many years, the heir to a long line of leaders. So Roger should be safe
The argument made sense to Pony, and her expression showed some relief.
"Yet still you want Roger back with us," the elf continued.
"You wish him to accompany the caravan to Dundalis," said Juraviel, for he
had some suspicions about Pony's intentions. Like all the Touel'alfar,
Belli'mar Juraviel was blessed with the ability to sit back and study a
situation, to observe and to listen, and then to reason things through.
"Roger is a valuable ally. I fear for his safety and prefer that he
remains with Elbryan until he has learned more about the dangers of the
wide world," Pony said firmly.
Her words were spoken calmly, but perceptive Juraviel did not miss that
Pony's deep-seated resentment of the Church that had evolved into absolute
hatred. "With Elbryan?" he pressed. "With both of you, you mean?"
Pony gave a noncommittal shrug, and that halfhearted answer only
reinforced the elf's belief that she did not mean to go north with the
caravan. He let the silence linger for a long while, let Pony alone with
her thoughts as she stared at the distant encampment.
"I should go to Captain Kilronney," she said finally.
"Perhaps he has been recalled to Palmaris," Juraviel offered. "There are
few monsters about," he added when she looked puzzled. "A force as strong
as his might better serve the King in other regions."
"There is one troublesome group of powries to the west that he wishes to
destroy before he turns south," said Pony. "And, for Elbryan, I will soon
ask Captain Kilronney to spend the winter in Caer Tinella and then
accompany the caravan to Dundalis."
"Indeed," said the elf. "And will Jilseponie also accompany the caravan?"
His blunt question hit her hard, and she did not reply for several seconds.
"Of course, Elbryan thinks you will go," Juraviel offered, "as does Tomas
Gingerwart. I heard him say as much."
"Then why would you ask--"
"Because I do not believe that you intend to make the journey," Juraviel
explained. "Your eyes are turned southward. Will you not return to your
Pony was caught and she knew it--she even subconsciously glanced south
again. "Of course I intend to return to Dundalis," she said. "If that is
where Elbryan goes, then it is my place."
"And you have no say which place you two must share?"
"Do not twist my words," she warned. "If I choose to live elsewhere, then
do not doubt that Elbryan will follow me."
"And what do you choose?"
Again came the shrug. "I will return to Dundalis, but not with the
caravan," Pony admitted.
Even though he had suspected as much all along, the proclamation stunned
"I will return to Palmaris for a time," Pony went on. "I wish to look in
on Belster O'Comely and see how he fares with Fellowship Way."
"But you will have the time to go to Palmaris and see Belster, and then
return before the caravan departs," Juraviel reasoned.
"I have had enough of the northland and the fighting for now," came Pony's
"That may be half true," the elf replied. Pony looked at him, and saw he
was wearing a knowing smile. "You believe that your fight has just begun.
The Father Abbot of the Abellican Church has waged war on the family of
Jilseponie, and now she means to take the war to him."
"I could not begin--" she started to reply.
"No, you could not," the elf interrupted. "Do you intend to travel back to
St.-Mere-Abelle to wage war against nearly a thousand battle-trained and
magic-wielding monks? Or will you attack St. Precious and their new abbot,
who, according to Master Jojonah, is the finest warrior ever to venture
forth from St.-Mere-Abelle? And what of Elbryan?" the elf pressed,
following Pony then, for she started to walk away. "How will he feel when
he learns that you deserted him, that you could not trust him to join this
course you have chosen for yourself?"
"Enough!" Pony snapped, spinning to face him. "I am not deserting Elbryan."
"If you go to wage war privately, then you are."
"You know nothing about it."
"Then tell me." The simple manner in which Juraviel spoke calmed Pony
considerably, reminded her that the elf was a friend, a true friend, to be
"I do not go south to wage war," she explained, "though do not doubt that
I intend to repay the Abellican Church for the pain it has brought me."
A shiver coursed Juraviel's spine; he had never heard Pony sound so cold
before--and he did not like it, not one bit.
"But that will wait," Pony went on. "Dundalis is the primary issue for
Elbryan and for Roger, if he ever returns to us. And I know that we all
must wait to discover what transpired during Baron Bildeborough's meeting
with the King. Perhaps my war with the Church will not be so private after
"Then why do you look south?" Juraviel asked quietly.
"On the road to St.-Mere-Abelle, when I thought we would meet a dark end
or that this issue--all of it--would be resolved, I seduced Elbryan."
"You are husband and wife, after all," the elf replied with a grin.
"We had made a pact of abstinence," Pony explained, "for we feared--"
"You are with child," Juraviel realized, his golden eyes opening wide.
Pony, neither with words nor expression, denied it.
"But perhaps you are wrong," Juraviel offered. "That was but a few weeks
"I knew the morning after we made love," Pony assured him. "I know not if
it is my work with the gemstones, the soul stone in particular, or perhaps
it is merely the miracle of life itself, but I knew. And all that has
happened--or more pointedly, not happened--in the ensuing weeks has shown
that I am with child, Belli'mar Juraviel."
Juraviel's smile widened all the more as he considered the potential for
this child, born of such parents. That smile dissipated though when
Juraviel looked up to consider Pony's frown.
"You should be joyous!" he said to her. "This is an occasion for
celebration and not for scowls."
"The war is not nearly at its end," Pony said. "Dundalis has yet to be
"A minor issue," the elf replied. "And forget your wars, Jilseponie
Wyndon. Consider that which is within you the most important matter for
you and Elbryan."
Pony did manage a smile at the name Jilseponie Wyndon, the first time
Juraviel had ever called her that. "You'll not tell Elbryan," she said,
"not about my plan to go south, and not about my ... our child."
"He has a right to know," Juraviel started to protest.
"And so he shall know--by my words and not yours."
Juraviel dipped a respectful bow.
"I will go to Captain Kilronney," Pony explained. "Let us see what these
new soldiers have come about." She walked past him, and the elf fell in
behind her, to shadow her movements from the forest. If they were wrong
about the new soldiers, if these riders had come north in search of two
outlaws, then Juraviel would stand beside his friend.
The elf spent a long time considering that notion: his friend. What would
Lady Dasslerond--leader of the Touel'alfar--and the others of Caer'alfar
think if they understood the depth of that truth within Belli'mar
Juraviel's heart? Other elves had befriended Nightbird during his stay in
the elven valley, and Tuntun had become close to the man, and to
Jilseponie. But always before--when Juraviel decided to go to Mount Aida
with the companions to battle the demon dactyl and when afterward the elf
chose to lead human refugees to the elven valley; when Dasslerond allowed
those pitiful humans in that secret elven place; even when Tuntun chose to
follow the expedition to Aida and ultimately to sacrifice her life--the
elven choices had been made out of practicality and the prospects for gain
to the elves. Now, though, if Elbryan and Pony were to be engaged in a
battle, it would be a fight between humans, a fight that had nothing to do
with the good of the elven folk, and Juraviel's participation in the
matter would not change the outcome.
Yet he would fight with his friends--and die with his friends, if that
came to pass. Indeed, the elf's choice to go to St.-Mere-Abelle to help
rescue Bradwarden and Jilseponie's adoptive parents had been based wholly
Lady Dasslerond would not approve, Juraviel knew, for this conflict
between his friends and the Church was one that must be decided by the
humans. Juraviel's actions then and now were not in accord with the
general tenets of elven society, which placed the good of the elves above
all, believing the life of a single elf worth far more than those of a
thousand of another race--even humans, whom the elves did not dislike.
But Juraviel would follow Pony now, and if a fight came, he would stand
and die beside his friend.
As soon as Elbryan left Tomas--the discussion ended by the tumult as the
Palmaris soldiers rumbled through Caer Tinella on their way to find the
Kingsmen--he started straight off to find Symphony and ride for the camp.
Like Pony, he feared that the arrival of these soldiers might have
something to do with the gemstones and the escape of the imprisoned
centaur from St.-Mere-Abelle. Also, he assumed Pony was already meeting
with Captain Kilronney. The ranger breathed a bit easier as he neared the
camp's perimeter and saw no scars of explosive magic: if Pony were there
and the soldiers had tried to take her, her magical barrage would likely
have leveled half the encampment!
"Greetings, Nightbird!" a sentry called. Another soldier moved to take
Symphony's reins, but the ranger waved him away.
"New arrivals?" he asked.
"Palmaris garrison," the soldier explained. "They are in discussion with
"And with Jilseponie?"
"To be sure, she has not yet arrived," the soldier replied.
Elbryan directed Symphony into the encampment and was greeted warmly by
all he encountered, men and women whose respect he had earned in the last
couple of weeks, in the few battles the group had waged against rogue
bands of monsters. Captain Kilronney's soldiers had been glad to have
Nightbird--and Jilseponie!--by their side when the fighting began. The
ranger, in turn, had come to know and respect these soldiers; if the new
arrivals had come with malicious intent in search of him and Pony, the
word had not yet spread.
The ranger's relief faded when he dismounted and entered Captain
Kilronney's tent. So grave were the expressions of Kilronney and the
others that Elbryan's hand went to the hilt of his sword.
"What news?" the ranger asked after a tense moment.
Kilronney eyed him squarely. The captain was taller than Elbryan by two
inches, and was solidly built, though nowhere near as heavily muscled as
the powerful ranger. His neatly trimmed beard and mustache were strikingly
red, as was his bushy hair; and all that added contrast to his intensely
blue eyes--eyes that now showed a profound sadness and anger to perceptive
Shamus Kilronney looked to the leader of the Palmaris contingent, and the
ranger tensed, almost expecting an attack. "What news?" Elbryan demanded
"Who is this man?" asked the leader of the Palmaris garrison, a solidly
built woman, nearer to six feet in height than to five, with hair as fiery
red as Kilronney's hanging in thick braids. Her eyes, like the captain's,
were sparkling blue. It seemed to Elbryan that these two might even be
siblings--except that her accent was closer to the rural dialect, typical
of the underclass, while Shamus Kilronney's diction and enunciation were
"He is an ally," Kilronney explained, "serving as scout for my garrison."
"A mere scout?" the woman remarked, and she raised her eyebrows as she
considered the powerful ranger. Elbryan saw her suspicions etched there
and also a bit of curiosity.
"His accomplishments are too many for me even to begin to list them now,"
Kilronney said impatiently.
The woman nodded.
"Baron Rochefort Bildeborough is dead," Kilronney bluntly explained.
Elbryan's green eyes went wide. His first thought was for Roger, whom he
knew was traveling with Bildeborough.
"He got murdered on the road just south o' Palmaris," the woman explained,
her voice strong and determined--and hiding great pain, Elbryan realized.
"They're sayin' his carriage was attacked by some beast, a great cat most
"On his way back from Ursal?" the ranger asked.
"On his way to Ursal," the woman corrected.
"But that was months ago," the ranger protested. What he was thinking was
that, if the woman's words were true, he and Pony had passed through
Palmaris after the murder and yet had heard nothing of it.
"We didn't think to make the trip north a priority," the woman said dryly,
"bigger nobles to tell than Captain Shamus Kilronney and his dirty friend."
"What of his companions?" the ranger asked, ignoring the insults and
accepting the woman's explanation for the lack of communication.
"All killed," the woman replied.
Elbryan's thoughts whirled.
"They'd set their camp," another soldier offered. "Seems they were caught
unawares. The Baron tried to get back into his carriage, but the cat
followed him in and tore him up."
From the few words the soldier had offered, Elbryan had great doubts
concerning the nature of this beast. In his years with the Touel'alfar, he
had been taught the ways of animals, hunter and hunted. There were great
cats about, though very few remained in the civilized lands between
Palmaris and Ursal. But such creatures would not normally attack and
slaughter a group of men. A hunting cat might take a lone person for food,
might even stay with its victim and fight off any others who tried to take
the prize from it, but the telling clue here was the pursuit of the Baron
into his carriage.
"I seen it meself," another soldier offered. "All of 'em, torn up and
lying in a pond o' blood."
"And who was killed first?" the ranger asked.
"Had to be one o' the guards at the fire," the man replied. "One never
even got his weapon out afore the cat ripped him dead, and the others got
no chance to set any defense."
"So the Baron was the last killed--in his carriage?"
The man nodded, his lips tight, as if he were choking back pain.
It made little sense to Elbryan, unless some diseased animal had attacked
or unless a group of cats--an unlikely occurrence--had come in together.
"How many were eaten?" he asked the witness.
"They was all ripped," the man said. "Their guts was spillin' out. One of
'em had his heart laying open on his chest! I'm not for knowing how many
bites the cat took of each."
"And ye're thinkin' this to be needed?" the woman protested to Captain
Kilronney turned a plaintive look upon Elbryan, but the ranger had his
hand up, signaling that he would not press the issue further. He didn't
need to. No hungry cat would leave as tempting a morsel as a heart
uneaten, and no cat would spend the energy killing fleeing people when
there was a fresh kill to be eaten. If the man's description of the scene
was accurate, then the Baron had not been killed by any natural beast.
And of course that led Elbryan to even more disturbing thoughts. He had
seen the gemstones at work many times, had spoken with Avelyn about them
at length, and knew of one that could transform a man's arm into an
"The men about the Baron," the ranger began calmly, "did you know them
"One was a friend," the witness replied. "And I seen the others with him
before. The Baron's closest guard, they were!"
The ranger nodded. "I have heard that another--not a soldier--was
traveling with Baron Bildeborough."
"The little fellow," the woman remarked. "Yeah, we heared o' him."
"And was his body at the camp?"
"Didn't see 'im," the witness replied.
That gave Elbryan a bit of relief but didn't confirm anything. The cat, if
it was a cat, might have dragged Roger away to eat. Even more plausibly,
the monk, if it was a monk, might have taken Roger prisoner, seeking
information about Elbryan and Pony.
"What is your course?" he asked the Palmaris leader.
"We come ridin' to tell Captain Kilronney o' the Baron, as runners have
been sent in every direction," she replied.
"The death of the Baron holds tremendous implications for Palmaris,"
Shamus Kilronney remarked, "especially following so closely on the murder
of Abbot Dobrinion."
"The city's been in brew all the season," the woman added. "The new
abbot's just returned from another trip to St.-Mere-Abelle--some College
of Abbots, whatever that might be meanin'--and now he's taken his place,
and a bit more than that, but he's not without his rivals."
The ranger nodded, hearing the words as confirmation of his worst fears.
He had once met the new abbot of St. Precious--only briefly but long
enough to recognize that De'Unnero was an unpleasant man, full of fire and
pride. Bildeborough's death left a gaping hole in the power structure--his
only heir, Connor, was dead, as was Abbot Dobrinion--that Abbot De'Unnero
would hasten to fill. And the fact that De'Unnero had gone back to
St.-Mere-Abelle for this college made the ranger fear the abbot might have
had a prisoner, Roger Lockless, in tow.
It seemed to Elbryan then that the Abellican Church was a great black
monster, rising to block out the sun. He considered his journey to Aida to
battle the dactyl and his trip to St.-Mere-Abelle to steal his friends
from the clutches of the Father Abbot, and he understood that those two
missions had not been so very different--not at all.
"And what course for you?" Elbryan asked Kilronney.
The man blew a helpless sigh. "I should return to Palmaris," he said, "to
see if I can help secure the city."
"You are needed here," the ranger reminded. "Winter may strike hard at
these folk and bring in monsters that they cannot overcome without your
help. And then there is the matter of the caravan north, before the start
"Ye're not for comparin' the reopenin' o' the Timberlands to the security
of Palmaris?" the woman p