Elbryan Wyndon was up before the dawn. He dressed quickly, fumbling with his clothes in the red light of the hearth's glowing embers. He ran a hand through his touseled straight hair--a light brown shock that bleached pale on its top layers under the summer sun. He retrieved his belt and dagger, which he had reverently placed right near his bed, and Elbryan felt powerful as he ceremoniously strapped the weapon about his waist.
He grabbed the heaviest wrap he could find and rushed out into the dark and chill air, so anxious that he hardly remembered to close the cabin door behind him. The small frontier village of Dundalis was quiet and eerily still about him, sleeping off the well-earned weariness that followed every day's hard labor. Elbryan, too, had worked hard the previous day--harder than normal, for several of the village men and women were out in the deep forest, and the boys and girls, like Elbryan who was nearing his teens, had been asked to keep things aright. That meant gathering wood and tending the fires, repairing the cabins--which always seemed to need repair!--and walking the perimeter of the sheltered vale that held the village, watching for sign of bear, great cat, or the packs of hunting wolves.
Elbryan was the oldest of those children, the leader of the pack, as it were, and he felt important, truly he felt a man. This would be the last time he remained behind when the hunters went off on the season's last and most important expedition. Next spring would bring his thirteenth birthday, the passage from childhood in the hardy land that was the northern wilderness. Next spring, Elbryan would hunt with the adults, the games of his youth left behind.
Indeed he was tired from the previous day's labors, but so full of excitement that sleep had not come to him. The weather had turned toward winter. The men were expected back any day, and Elbryan meant to meet them and lead their procession into the village. Let the younger boys and girls see him then, and afford him the respect he deserved, and let the older men see that the village, under his watchful eye, had fared well in their absence.
He started out of Dundalis, stepping lightly despite his weariness, passing through the darker shadows of the small, one-story cabins.
"Jilly!" The call was not loud but seemed so in the quiet morning air. Elbryan moved up to the corner of the next house, smiling for his cleverness, and peered around.
"It could be today!" protested a young girl, Jilseponie, Elbryan's closest friend.
"You do not know that, Jilly," argued her mother, standing in the open doorway of their cabin. Elbryan tried to muffle his snicker; the girl hated that nickname, Jilly, though nearly everyone in town called her that. She preferred the simple "Jill." But between her and Elbryan, the title was Pony, their secret name, the one Jilseponie liked most of all.
The snicker was soon gone, but the smile remained, all the wider for the sight. Elbryan didn't know why, but he was always happy when he saw Pony, though only a couple of years before, he would have taunted her and the rest of the village girls, chasing them endlessly. One time Elbryan had made the mistake of catching Jilseponie without his male companions nearby, and of tugging too hard on her yellow mane to prove the point of his capture. He never saw the punch coming, never saw anything except how wide the blue sky had suddenly seemed as he lay on his back.
He could laugh at that embarrassment now, privately or even with Pony. He felt as though he could say anything to her, and she wouldn't judge him or make merry of his feelings.
Candlelight spilled out onto the road, softly illuminating the girl. Elbryan liked the image; every day that passed, he found that he enjoyed looking at Pony more and more. She was younger than Elbryan by five months but taller than he, standing about three inches above five feet, while the young man, to his ultimate horror, had not yet reached the coveted five foot mark. Elbryan's father had assured him that Wyndon boys were normally late in sprouting. All jealousy aside, Elbryan found the taller Pony quite a pleasing sight. She stood straight but not stiff, and could outrun and outfight any of the boys in Dundalis, Elbryan included. Still, there was a delicate aura about her, a softness that a younger Elbryan had viewed as weakness, but the older Elbryan viewed as oddly distracting. Her hair, which Jilseponie seemed to be constantly brushing, was golden, silken, and thick enough to lose a hand in; it bounced about her shoulders and back with an alluring wildness. Her eyes, huge eyes, were the richest and clearest blue Elbryan had ever seen, like great sponges soaking in the sights of the wide world and reflecting Jilseponie's every mood. When Pony's eyes showed sadness, Elbryan felt it in his heart; when they soared with sparkling joy, Elbryan's feet moved involuntarily in dance.
Her lips, too, were large and thick. The boys had often taunted Pony about those lips, saying that if she ever stuck them to a window, they would surely hold her fast for all eternity! Elbryan felt no desire to tease when looking at Pony's lips now. He sensed their softness, so very inviting ...
"I will be back in time for the morning meal," Pony assured her mother.
"The night woods are dangerous," her exasperated mother replied.
"I will be careful!" Pony responded dismissively, before the older woman had even finished the sentence.
Elbryan held his breath, thinking that Pony's mother, often stern, would scold the girl severely. She only sighed, though, and resignedly closed the cabin door.
Pony sighed, too, and shook her head as if to show her ultimate frustration with adults. Then she turned and skipped off, and was startled a moment later when Elbryan jumped out in front of her.
She reflexively cocked a fist, and Elbryan wisely jumped back.
"You are late," he said.
"I am early," Pony insisted, "too early. And I am tired."
Elbryan shrugged and nodded down the road to the north, then led the girl off at a swift pace. Despite her complaints concerning the time, Pony not only paced him but skipped right by him, obviously as excited as he. That excitement turned to sheer joy when they passed out of the town and began their ascent of the ridge. Pony chanced to look back to the south, and she stopped, stunned and smiling, and pointing to the night sky. "The Halo," she said breathlessly.
Elbryan turned to follow her gaze, and he, too, could not suppress a grin.
For stretched across the southern sky, more than halfway to the horizon, was Corona's Halo, the heavenly belt--a subtle tease of colors, red and green and blue and deep purple, a flowing softness, like a living rainbow. The Halo was sometimes visible in the summer sky, but only during the deepest parts of the shorter nights, when children, and even adults, were fast asleep. Elbryan and Jilseponie had seen it on a few occasions, but never so clearly as this, never so vibrant.
Then they heard a distant piping, soft music, perfect melody. It floated through the chill air, barely perceptible.
"The Forest Ghost," Pony whispered, but Elbryan didn't seem to hear. Pony spoke the words again, under her breath. The Forest Ghost was a common legend in the Timberlands. Half horse and half man, he was the keeper of the trees and the friend of the animals, particularly of the wild horses that ran in the dells to the north. For a moment, the thought of such a creature not so far away frightened Pony, but then her fears were washed away by the sheer beauty of the Halo and the fitting melody of the enchanting music. How could anyone, or anything, that could pipe so beautifully pose a danger?
The pair stood on the side of the ridge for a long while, not speaking, not looking at each other, not even realizing that the other was there. Elbryan felt totally alone, yet one with the universe, a small part of majesty, a small but endless flicker in eternity. His mind drifted up from the ridge, from the solid ground, from the sensible experiences of his existence into the unknown, exhilarating joy of spirituality. The name of "Mather" came to him briefly, though he didn't know why. He didn't know anything at that time, it seemed, and yet he knew everything--the secrets of the world, of peace, of eternity--it was all there before him, so simple and true. He felt a song in his heart, though it had no words, felt a warmth in all his body, though he was not at that moment a part of that corporeal form.
The sensation passed--too quickly. Elbryan sighed deeply and turned to Pony. He was about to say something but held the words, seeing that she, too, was immersed in something beyond language. Elbryan felt suddenly closer to the girl, as if they two had shared something very special and very private. How many others could look upon the Halo and understand the beauty of the thing? he wondered. None of the adults of Dundalis, certainly, with their grumbling and grouching, and none of the other children, he decided, who were too caught up in silliness to ponder such thoughts.
No, it was his experience and Pony's--theirs alone. He watched her slowly drift back to the reality about them--the ridge, the night, and her companion. He could almost see her spirit flowing back into that five foot three inch body--a body that was growing more shapely by the day.
Elbryan resisted the sudden and inexplicable urge to run over and kiss Pony.
"What?" she asked, seeing turmoil, even horror, come over his face, despite the darkness.
The boy looked away, angry at himself for allowing such feelings. Pony was a girl, after all, and though Elbryan would openly admit that she was a friend, such deeper feelings were truly horrifying.
"Elbryan?" she asked. "Was it the song, the Forest Ghost?"
"Never heard it," Elbryan retorted, though when he thought about it, he had indeed heard the distant piping melody.
"Then what?" Pony pressed.
"Nothing," he replied gruffly. "Come along. The dawn is not long away." He started up the ridge at a feverish pace then, even scrambling on all fours at times, crunching through the thick carpet of fallen leaves. Pony paused and watched him, confused at first. Gradually a smile found its way back onto her face, her dimples showing the slightest blush of red. She suspected she knew the feelings that Elbryan was fighting, the same feelings she had battled earlier that same year.
Pony had won that battle by accepting, even relishing, those private feelings, the warmth that washed over her whenever she looked upon Elbryan. She hoped Elbryan would wage a gallant war now, with an outcome similar to her own.
She caught up to her friend at the top of the ridge. Behind them, Dundalis sat quiet and dark. All the world seemed still, not a bird calling, not a whisper of wind. They sat together, yet apart, separated by a couple of feet and by the wall of Elbryan's confusion. The boy didn't move, hardly seemed to blink, just sat staring straight ahead at the wide vale before him, though it was too dark for him to even recognize the place.
Pony, though, was more animated. She let her gaze linger on Elbryan until the boy became obviously flustered, then she politely looked away, back to the village--a single candle was burning in one of the houses--and back to the Halo, which was now fast fading in the southern sky. She could still make out the brighter colors, but that special moment of beauty, of innermost reflection, had passed. Now she was again Jilseponie, just Jilseponie, sitting on a ridge with her friend, awaiting the return of her father and the other hunters. And the dawn was approaching. Pony realized that she could make out more of the village, could discern the individual houses, even the individual posts of Bunker Crawyer's corral.
"Today," Elbryan said unexpectedly, his voice turning her about to study him. He was at ease again, the uncomfortable feelings tossed out with the mystery of the night. "They will return this day," he announced with a nod.
Pony grinned warmly, hoping he was right.
They sat in silence as the day grew about them. In the wide vale, the wall of blackness gave way to the individual dark spots that were the evergreens--rows and rows of ancient trees, Corona's oldest soldiers, standing proud, though most were not twice Elbryan's height. The starkness of the scene from this vantage point, in this mounting light, amazed the companions. The ground about the trees caught the morning light and held it fast, for the undergrowth was not dark but was white and thick, a padding of caribou moss. Elbryan loved the stuff--all the children did. Every time he gazed upon the white carpet, he wanted to take off his shoes and pants and run through it barefoot and bare legged, to feel its softness between his toes and brushing against his shins. In many places, the caribou moss was even deeper than his knees!
He wanted to do it, as he had so many times in his earlier years, wanted to cast off his shoes and all his clothes ...
He remembered his companion, his earlier feelings, and turned away from Pony, blushing fiercely.
"If they come in before the sun gets too high, we'll see them a mile away," Pony remarked. The girl was not looking ahead, though, but at the ridge to the south behind them. Autumn was well advanced, and all the leaves of the deciduous trees, particularly the sugar maples, were bright with colors, shining red and orange and yellow, painting the ridge.
Elbryan was glad that the distracted girl had not noticed his own shade of red. "Coming down that side of the vale," he agreed sharply, catching Pony's attention, and pointing to the wide gentle slope of the vale's northeastern face added, "a mile away!"
Their assessment proved overoptimistic, for the starkness of the scene had confused their sense of distance. They did indeed spot the returning hunters, to their complete joy, but not until the group was moving along the bottom of the bowl-shaped vale, a line of tiny forms far below them.
They watched, chattering wildly, trying to count and to guess who was leading but getting confused as parts of the line wove in and out of the tree shadows.
"A shoulder pole!" Elbryan cried out suddenly, spotting the line that seemed to join two of the men.
"Another!" Pony added happily, and she clapped her hands with glee as more came into view. The hunters would return with carcasses--elk, caribou, or white-tailed deer--slung on shoulder poles, and it seemed to the watching pair as if this hunt had been successful indeed! Their patience fast disintegrated; they leaped out together, running fast down the steeper slope, picking their angle to intercept the returning troop.
From the ridge top, the vale seemed stark and open, but descending into it, Elbryan and Pony quickly remembered just how confusing and intimidating a place it could be. Down among the squat but wide-spreading pines and spruce, vision in all directions was blocked after just a few feet; the companions became separated quickly and spent many minutes just talking themselves back together and then arguing over which direction would lead them to their fathers.
"The sun is in the southeast," Elbryan reminded Pony, squaring his shoulders as he took command of the situation. The sun had not yet come up high enough to peer over the rim of the vale, but they could make out its position easily enough. "The hunters approach from the northeast, so all we have to do is keep the sun just behind our right shoulders."
It seemed logical enough to Pony, so she shrugged and let Elbryan lead and didn't mention to him that if they simply called out loudly, their fathers would likely hear them and guide them in.
Elbryan picked his way determinedly, weaving about the bushy evergreens, not even looking back to make sure Pony was keeping up with him. He moved faster still when he heard the voices of the hunters. His heart pounded when he recognized his father's deep tones, though he couldn't make out what the man was saying.
Pony caught up to him, even passed him over that last expanse, leading the way through the tangle of two wide pines, pushing aside the prickly branches and bursting into a clearing right beside the returning party.
The startled, almost feral, reaction of the hunters froze Elbryan in his tracks and sent Pony ducking for cover. Elbryan hardly heard the sharp scolding his father offered, the boy's eyes basking in the sight, moving from the carcass of a caribou buck, to a deer, to a line of coneys, to ...
Elbryan and Jilseponie stood perfectly still, stricken. Their fathers, who had come forward to meet the impetuous children, to scold them again for being so far away from Dundalis, let the opportunity pass. The object on the fourth shoulder pole, each man realized, would be enough to get the lesson across.
The sun was up, the day bright, and the village wide awake by the time Elbryan and Pony led the hunting party back into Dundalis. Expressions ran from excitement to awkward fear to blank amazement as the villagers took stock of the kills, especially the last carcass on the shoulder poles, a smallish humanoid form.
"A goblin?" asked one woman, bending low to regard the creature's hideous features: the sloping forehead and the long thin nose, the tiny but perfectly round eyes, now glazed over, sickly yellow. The creature's ears, pointed at the top and with a loose flapping, fat lobe at the bottom, stuck out several inches from its head. The woman shuddered when she considered the mouth, a tangle of greenish-yellow fangs, all crooked but each angled inward. The chin was narrow, but the jowls wide with muscle. It wasn't difficult to imagine the power of the creature's bite or the pain of getting free from those nasty teeth.
"Are they really that color?" asked another woman, and she dared to touch the creature's skin. "Or did it just turn that way after it died?"
"Yellow and green," an old man answered firmly, though he had not been out on the hunt. Elbryan watched the wrinkled and bent elder, Brody Gentle, by name, though the children usually called him "Body Grabber" in mock horror, teasing him and then running away. Old Brody was a snarling type, angry at the world and at his own infirmities, and an easy mark for children, always ready to give chase and never quick enough to make a catch. Elbryan considered the man's true name now, for the first time, and nearly laughed aloud at the contradiction of the surname with Brody's grouchy demeanor.
"Surely is a goblin," Brody continued, obviously enjoying the attention, "big one, too, and they're yellow and green," he answered the second questioning woman, "living and dead, though this one's fast turning gray." He snickered as he finished, a sound of utter contempt that seemed to lend credence to his greater knowledge of the goblin race. Goblins were little seen creatures; many considered them more myth than truth. Even in Dundalis, and in other frontier villages nestled in the Timberlands on the borders of the deep Wilderlands, there had been no confirmed sightings of any goblins for longer than the villagers could remember--with the apparent exception of Brody Gentle.
"You have seen goblins before?" asked Olwan Wyndon, Elbryan's father, and his tone and the fact that he crossed his large arms over his chest as he spoke showed he held many doubts.
Brody Gentle scoffed at him. "Oft have I told the tales!" the old man fumed.
Olwan Wyndon nodded, not wanting to get Brody into one of his legendary fits of outrage. Sitting by the hearth in the village's common house, Brody had recounted endless tales of his youth, of battling goblins, even fomorian giants, in the first days of Dundalis, staking out the ground for proper folk. Most listened politely but turned up their eyes and shook their heads whenever Brody looked away.
"We had the word of a goblin sighting in Weedy Meadow," offered another man, referring to another village some twenty miles to the west of Dundalis.
"A child's word," Olwan Wyndon promptly reminded them all, quieting nervous whispers before they could gain any momentum.
"Well, we've much work to do, and you've a tale to tell," Pony's mother intervened. "Better suited for the common house, after a supper of venison stew."
Olwan nodded and the crowd gradually dispersed, one person taking a last, long look at the goblin, which was indeed fast turning gray. Elbryan and Pony lingered long by the corpse, studying it intently. Pony didn't miss her companion's derisive snort.
"Small as an eight-year-old," the boy explained, waving a dismissive hand at the goblin. That was something of an exaggeration, but, indeed, the goblin wasn't much above four feet tall and couldn't have weighed more than Elbryan's ninety pounds.
"Perhaps it is a child," Pony offered.
"You heard Body Grabber," Elbryan countered. He screwed up his face, the ridiculous nickname sounding foolish in his ears. "He said it was a big one." He ended with another snort.
"It looks fierce," Pony insisted, bending low to study the creature more closely. She didn't miss Elbryan's third snort. "Remember the badger?" she asked quietly, stealing the boy's bluster. "Not a third the size of the goblin."
Elbryan blanched and looked away. Earlier that year, at the beginning of summer, some of the younger children had snagged a badger in a noose. When they came into the village with the news, Elbryan, the oldest of their group, had taken command, leading the way back to the spot. He approached the snared creature boldly, only to find that it had chewed right through the leather bindings. When it came around at him, teeth bared, Elbryan had, so the legend--and among the children, it was indeed a legend--said, "run away so fast that he didn't even notice he was running straight up a tree, not even using his hands to grab a branch."
The rest of the children had fled, as well, but not so far that they could not witness Elbryan's ultimate humiliation, as the badger, like some vindictive enemy, had waited at the base of Elbryan's tree, keeping the boy up in the branches for more than an hour.
Stupid badger, Elbryan thought, and stupid Pony for opening that wound once again. He walked away without another word.
Pony couldn't sustain her smile as she watched him go, wondering if she had pushed him a little too hard.
Every villager was in the common house that night, though most had already heard the tale of the goblin fight by then. The hunting party had come upon a band of six creatures, or actually both groups had come upon each other, stepping out of the thick brush onto an open, rocky riverbank simultaneously, barely twenty paces apart. After a moment of shock, the goblins had thrown their spears, injuring one man. The ensuing fight had been brief and brutal, with many nicks and cuts to both sides and even a couple of bites to the humans, before the goblins, outnumbered two to one, had fled, disappearing into the brush as suddenly as they had appeared. The only serious wound to either side was the hit to the slain goblin--a spear thrust that had punctured the creature's lung. It had tried to flee with its companions but fell short of the brush for lack of breath and died soon after.
Olwan Wyndon told the tale again in full to the gathering, trying hard not to embellish it. "We spent three days looking but found no more sign of the other goblins," he finished.
Immediately a pair of mugs came up into the air from the side of the room. "To Shane McMichael!" the two mug holders bellowed together. "Goblinslayer!"
The cheer went up, and Shane McMichael, a quiet, slender young man just a few years older than Elbryan, reluctantly came forward to stand beside Olwan in front of the blazing hearth. With much prodding, the man was prompted to tell of the fight, of the cunning twist and parry and then straightforward thrust that had come too soon for the goblin to completely dodge.
Elbryan savored every word, envisioning the battle clearly. How he envied Shane!
Afterward, the conversation turned into an exchange of what other people had recently seen, of the report of a goblin sighting in Weedy Meadow, and even a few wild tales from Dundalis folk claiming that they had noticed some huge tracks but just hadn't said anything about it. Elbryan at first listened intently to every word but, gradually taking the cue from his father's posture, came to understand that most of the talk was no more than individual efforts to grab a bit of attention. It surprised Elbryan that adults would act that way, especially considering the gravity of the situation.
Next came a discussion, led by Brody Gentle, of goblinkind in general, from the numerous small goblins to the rare and dangerous disfigured fomorian giants. Brody spoke with an air of expertise, but few in the room hung on his every word. Even young Elbryan soon came to realize that the old man knew little more than anyone else concerning goblins, and Elbryan doubted that Brody had ever seen a fomorian giant. Elbryan looked at Pony, who seemed to be growing quite bored by it all, and motioned to the door.
She was out into the night before he got out of his chair.
"Bluster," Elbryan insisted, joining her. The night was chill, and so the boy moved close to Pony, sharing their warmth.
"But we cannot deny the goblin," Pony replied, motioning to the shed where the creature had been placed. "Your father's tale was real enough."
"I meant Brody--"
"I know what you meant," said Pony, "and I do not believe him either--not completely."
Elbryan's surprise at her qualification of the remark reflected clearly on his face.
"There are goblins," Pony explained. "We know that well enough. So perhaps those who first came to the edge of the Wilderlands to settle Dundalis did have a few fights on their hands."
"Fomorians?" Elbryan asked skeptically.
Pony shrugged, not willing to discount the possibility of giants, not after viewing a dead goblin.
Elbryan conceded the point, though he still thought Brody Gentle more bluster than truth. He couldn't hold that thought, though, or any other negative feelings, when Jilseponie turned to look him directly in the eye, when she, her face only a few inches from his own, locked his olive green eyes with her stare.
Elbryan found his breath hard to come by. Pony was close--too close--and she wasn't backing away!
And she was coming closer, Elbryan realized, her head slowly drifting toward his, her lips, so soft, in line with his! Panic hit him, wrestling hard with a jumble of other emotions that Elbryan did not understand. A part of him wanted to turn away, but another part, a larger and surprising part, would not let him move.
The door to the common house opened with a crash, and both Pony and Elbryan immediately spun away from each other.
The younger children came out in a mob, swarming around the older pair. "What are we going to do?" one of them asked.
Elbryan and Pony exchanged curious looks.
"We must be ready for when the goblins come back," another boy remarked.
"The goblins were never here," Pony interjected.
"But they will be!" claimed the boy. "Kristeena says so."
All eyes turned to Kristeena, a girl of ten who always seemed to be staring at Elbryan. "Goblins always come back for their dead," she explained eagerly.
"How do you know that?" Elbryan asked doubtfully, and his tone seemed to hurt the girl.
She looked down and kicked the dirt with one foot. "My grandmother knows," she answered, her voice suddenly sheepish, and Elbryan felt a fool for making her so uncomfortable. All the gang was quiet, hanging on Elbryan's every word.
Pony nudged him hard. Pony had told him many times that Kristeena was sweet for him, and the older girl, not viewing a ten-year-old as competition, had been charmed by the thought.
"She probably does know," Elbryan said, and Kristeena looked up, suddenly beaming. "And it sounds right." He turned to the shed, and all the younger children flowed about him, following his gaze.
"And if the goblins do come back, we must be ready," Elbryan decided. He looked at Pony and winked, and was surprised when she returned the gesture with a serious frown.
Perhaps this was more than a game.