The Demon Spirit

CHAPTER 11 Roger Lockless, I Presume

Wincing in agony, Roger bit hard on the piece of wood he had stuck between his teeth. He had torn a sleeve from his shirt, tied it tight about his leg, just below the knee, and knotted it about a second piece of wood. Now he turned that wood, tightening the tourniquet.

He nearly swooned more than once, flitting in and out of con-sciousness. If he passed out now, he would surely bleed to death, he reminded himself, for the bite of the Craggoth hound was deep, the blood spurting.

Finally, mercifully, the blood flow stemmed, and Roger, cold and clammy, sweating profusely, slumped back against the earthen wall of his cell. He knew this place well, a root cellar close to the town center, and knew there was only one way in or out: a trapdoor at the top of a rickety wooden ladder. Roger stared at it now, lines of meager daylight streaming through. The late afternoon sun, he realized, and he thought that he should try to make his break when the light was gone, under cover of night.

He recognized immediately the foolishness of that notion. He wasn't going anywhere this night, could hardly find the strength to pull himself away from the wall. Chuckling at the futility of it all, he slumped down to the floor, and then he slept all the night through, and would have remained asleep for many, many more hours if the door to his jail had not banged open and the dawn's light poured in.

Roger groaned and tried to straighten himself.

A powrie appeared on the ladder, followed by another, Kos-kosio Begulne himself. The dwarf in front went right to Roger and pulled him up to his feet, slamming him hard against the wall.

Roger teetered, but managed to hold his balance, realizing that if he fell over, the dwarf would just hoist him up again, probably even more roughly.

"Who uses the magic?" Kos-kosio Begulne asked, coming up to Roger, grabbing him by the front of his torn and bloody shirt and pulling him low, so his face was barely an inch from the leathery, wrinkled, imposing visage of the dwarf, close enough that Kos-kosio's foul breath was hot in Roger's face.

"Magic?" Roger replied.

"Get the hounds!" Kos-kosio Begulne cried.

Roger groaned again at the sound of barking.

"Who uses the magic?" the powrie leader demanded. "How many, and how many stones?"

"Stones?" Roger echoed. "I know of no stones, nor of any magic."

Another bark came from above.

"I promise," Roger added, his tone frantic. "I could just lie and give you a name, any name, and you would not know if I spoke truly until, or unless, you found that person. But I do not know of any magic. None!"

Kos-kosio Begulne held Roger close a bit longer, the dwarf growling low -??and Roger feared that the fierce powrie would bite his nose off. But then Kos-kosio shoved him back hard against the wall and spun toward the stairs, convinced by the simple logic of Roger's defense. "Ye tie him up!" the leader barked at the other powrie. "Strangle knot. We wants to make our guest comfortable."

Roger wasn't quite sure what Kos-kosio Begulne had in mind, but the other powrie's grin, wide with evil glee, was not promis-ing. The dwarf produced a thin, rough-edged rope and advanced on him.

Roger slumped to the floor. The dwarf kicked him over onto his belly, then yanked his arms roughly behind his back.

"Nah, put the damned hounds away," Kos-kosio Begulne com-manded yet another powrie who had come to the top of the root cellar's ladder, leading a Craggoth hound on a short leash. "He's just a weak human, and won't be living through much more pain." Kos-kosio looked back from his perch on the lower rungs, meeting Roger's glare. "I'm wanting to find a bit more fun with this one be-fore I let him die."

"Lucky me," Roger muttered under his breath, and that only got him an even harder tug from the dwarf with the rope.

The "strangle knot," as Kos-kosio Begulne had called it, proved to be a devilish twist of the rope. Roger's arms were bound tightly behind his back, bent at the elbow so his hands nearly touched the back of his neck. The nasty cord then looped over both his shoul-ders and down the front of his body, wrapping painfully under-neath his groin and then up his back once more, finally looping about Roger's throat. So expertly was he tied, and so tightly, that the slightest shift of his arms not only sent waves of pain into his groin, but cut off his air supply, as well.

"Well, human lock-picker, let's be seeing if ye can get yer way outta this." The powrie laughed, set a torch in a wall sconce, lit it, and went to the top of the ladder, calling out to some comrades. "Kos-kosio's not wanting this one to get away!"

"Double lock?" one of the dwarves up above asked.

"Double lock," the powrie on the stairs confirmed. "And then sit the damned hound on it! And ye get one to come and take me seat before the sun's too low. I'm not wanting to miss me supper sitting with this smelly human."

"Quit yer bitching," the other dwarf replied, and closed the heavy trapdoor with a resounding bang. Roger listened carefully as chains and locks were set in place on the door. He studied the powrie coming down the stairs.

One mistake,the young man silently berated Kos-kosio Begulne.You let this one keep a weapon.

The powrie made straight for Roger. "You just lie still," the dwarf instructed, and then, to accentuate the point, the nasty crea-ture kicked Roger hard in the ribs.

Roger squirmed - and that only choked him all the more.

Laughing, the dwarf moved across the way and sat down under the burning torch. The wicked creature took off its crimson beret, twirling it about with one finger, letting Roger see it clearly, as if to promise him that his blood, too, would soon enhance the hue. Then the powrie put its gnarly hands behind its head and leaned against the wall, closing its eyes.

Roger spent a long, long while getting his bearings. He fought away the nausea and the pain, then tried to figure a way to get out of the ropes. That would be the easy part, he decided, because even if he got free, even if he then took the dwarf's weapon and killed the creature, where might he go? The cellar bulkhead was locked and chained, and he didn't have to be reminded of what lay in wait atop it.

Truly, the task before him seemed daunting, but Roger forced himself to calm and to concentrate, trying to break things down one step at a time.

Sometime in late afternoon the powries changed guards. The new one gave Roger a bit of food and a drink - nearly drowning him in the process - and then took a seat in much the same place as the previous sentry.

Within an hour this one, too, was snoring contentedly.

Determined not to spend another night as Kos-kosio Begulne's guest, Roger decided that the time to act was upon him. One small step at a time, he reminded himself as he braced his shoulder against the hard wall. He had to angle himself just right, so his weight and not his strength would do most of the work. With a glance at his powrie jailor to make sure the creature was sleeping soundly, Roger closed his eyes and mustered his nerve.

Then he dove against the wall, suddenly, powerfully, hitting with the front of his shoulder, the jolt driving his arm back. Roger's muscles and weight worked in a coordinated manner then, driving him ahead.

He heard a loud pop as his shoulder dislocated, and waves of pain rolled through his body, nearly laying him low. He fought them away, though, and with his arm thus contorted, the rope was loosened enough for him to slip it over the shoulder.

In a matter of seconds he was lying on the floor, free of the rope, gasping for breath. Then, after a moment's respite, he went back to work, jamming his shoulder the other way, popping it back in place - a useful little trick the thief had perfected over the years. Again he spent a moment letting the waves of pain subside, and then gathered up the rope and moved to the sleeping powrie.

"Hey," the dwarf protested a few minutes later, opening its sleepy eyes to see Roger standing before it, the dwarf's short sword in hand. "And what're ye meaning to do with that?" the powrie asked, climbing to its feet and drawing a dagger from its boot. Both the dwarf and Roger understood that even thus armed, the man was no match for the battle- seasoned powrie.

Roger hopped backward on his good leg, falling against the far wall; the powrie growled and charged, raising its dagger before it.

As that arm came up, the dwarf realized that a rope was looped about its wrist, a short leash fastened to a root sticking from the earthen wall near to where the dwarf had been sitting.

"What?" the powrie said, even as the loop tightened and held, pulling the dwarf's arm low, right between its legs, flipping the dwarf over to land heavily on its back.

Roger came off the wall even as the dwarf began its somersault, sliding in beside the prone creature.

"What?" the dwarf bellowed again, just before the pommel of its short sword smashed down on its hard head. The powrie thrashed, trying to pull its arm free, trying to grab at Roger with its other hand.

Roger pounded away with the pommel again and again, until fi-nally the stubborn dwarf lay still. The man nearly fell away from the pain then, and the exertion, flitting in and out of consciousness.

"Not much time," Roger reminded himself stubbornly, dragging himself to his feet.

The powrie stirred; Roger slammed it again, and then once more.

"Not much time," he said again, more insistently, shaking his head at the sheer resilience of the hardy dwarf.

Now things got more complicated; Roger played through the entire scenario, trying to figure every obstacle and every item he would need to overcome them. He took the dagger from the dwarf's hand and the belt from around its waist, and reset the rope to better secure the creature. Then he moved to the ladder, trying to get a measure of the bulkhead's strength. At the center of that trapdoor, on the inside, was a support beam, a strong log. Roger went at this first, or rather, at the wood above it, scraping a hollow area wide enough to loop the rope over the beam. Then he began an expert as-sault on the boards, whittling at their supports on either end. At one point he heard the growl of the wary Craggoth hound, and had to pause for a long while before the vicious dog would quiet down.

One scratch at a time, one broken splinter, one loosened peg. Again Roger had to stop, this time because his leg was throbbing so badly he could not remain on the ladder. And then again he had to wait, for the powrie was coming back to consciousness and needed to be clunked on the head one more time. Stubbornly Roger went back to work, and finally the boards to either side of the central sup-port were loosened.

The moment was upon him; he hoped he wouldn't faint away from the pain at a critical juncture.

He went back to the dwarf and gathered more tools, then spent a long moment replaying the expected scenario. He checked his gear one final time - the short sword and the dagger, the post from the dwarf's belt buckle, the leather laces from the dwarf's boots, andfinally, one of those smelly boots - and then took a deep steadying breath and moved back to the ladder. He pressed slightly on each of the loosened bulkhead boards, trying to get a better feel of where the hound might be. Of course, if there was more than one dog, or if there were any powries in the immediate area up above, the game would end quickly, and likely, painfully, Roger realized, but he de-cided he had to take the chance. In his mind, he had nothing to lose, for Kos-kosio Begulne would never let him go, and Roger held no illusions about his captivity: as soon as the powrie leader decided he was no longer useful, he would be tortured to death.

He had already looped the rope over the beam from right to left, but then, realizing that the hound was more to the left, he reversed the direction. Down the ladder Roger went, positioning the dazed powrie at the base and to the left-hand side.

Back up on the ladder, in place below the trapdoor, Roger rubbed his hands anxiously, reminding himself over and over that his timing had to be perfect. Using splinters from the worked boards, he set the noose in place just under the right-hand board. Then he took up the boot in one hand and put his other hand firmly against the right board, up through the noose.

A final deep breath and Roger pushed hard, partially dislodging the board, enough so he woke the hound fully and offered it an opening through which it could attack.

And attack it did, jaws snapping right for the boot that Roger pushed up into its face. As soon as the dog latched on, Roger, holding the other end of the boot in both hands, jumped from the ladder, drawing the stubborn hound in through the opening, in through the noose.

The snare worked perfectly, tightening about the hound as it came falling through, hooking about the dog's neck and under one paw about the shoulder. Down they went, Roger in a tumble - a painful tumble! - and the hound dropping to the end of the rope length. The sudden jerk lifted the powrie at the rope's other end to its knees and left the hound dangling, one of its back feet just brushing the floor.

The Craggoth hound bit hard on the boot, shaking its head vio-lently side to side, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was hanging. Roger was there in a split second, taking the opportunity to loop the leather shoelace about the creature's closed jaws, wrap-ping it tightly many times and then tying it off.

"Bark now," he taunted, then flicked his finger against the hound's nose. With a last quick check on the powrie, and one more slug to the head for good measure, Roger struggled back up the ladder.

All was quiet outside, but considering the pain in his leg, Roger didn't think he would have much luck trying to slip through the narrow opening he had broken in the trapdoor. He did get his hands out, though, enough to feel along the chains to the two padlocks. Always pleased by his own cleverness, smiling Roger took the narrow post of the powrie's buckle in hand and went to work.

Nightbird waited for the signal whistle, then moved quickly and quietly up to the tree in which his small friend was perched. From this vantage point they could see most of Caer Tinella, and Juraviel's estimate of the number of monsters within that town seemed conservative to the ranger.

"Do you have any idea where they would hold him?" he asked.

"I said that I heard them speak of him, not that I actually saw him," the elf replied. "He could be in any building, or more likely, considering the events of last night, he could be dead."

Nightbird wanted to argue, but held his tongue, for he found that he could not logically disagree with Juraviel. An entire day had passed - he and the elf couldn't risk coming into Caer Tinella in broad daylight -??giving Kos-kosio Begulne plenty of time to sort out the details of the disaster in the forest and to lay the blame for it at the feet of his valuable prisoner.

"We should have come right in," Juraviel went on. "As soon as the fight was over, with still two or three hours of darkness be-fore us."

"Pony had to tend the wounded," the ranger replied.

"She is not here anyway," the elf reminded. Nightbird had hoped she would accompany them, but Pony was still exhausted from the overuse of magic. After their sword-dance that morning, she had slept through most of the day, and would likely sleep well again that night.

"But this is," the ranger answered, holding up the hematite. "Roger Lockless might need it."

"More likely, Roger Lockless needs burying," the elf said dryly.

The ranger didn't appreciate the sarcasm, but again he said nothing, except to motion ahead and tell Juraviel to lead on.

The elf was gone in an instant, and a few seconds later another whistle moved the ranger even closer. They held their next position for some time, as a large group of powries and giants filtered out of the town, heading more to the west than the north.

"The fewer left in town, the better our chances," Juraviel re-marked, keeping his voice to a tiny whisper now that they were so close.

The ranger nodded and motioned for Juraviel to move along. The next hop put them at the railing of a corral; the next after that put them right beside a barn on the northeastern edge of town. Now they moved together, both holding bows. They froze when they heard voices within the barn, some goblins complaining about work and one grumbling about a broken chain.

"He could be in there," Juraviel said softly.

The ranger didn't think that a reputedly wise powrie leader would be foolish enough to put so valuable a prisoner on the out-skirts of the town, but he wanted to leave an open path out of Caer Tinella anyway, and so he gave a little tug on his bowstring and nodded toward the barn.

Juraviel led the way around the side, coming up on the front corner. They passed a pair of doors at the level of the ranger's head, used for throwing hay bales out to the cows, but there were no handles on the outside and so they paid the portal no heed - none, at least, until the two doors swung out, one slamming Nightbird about the shoulders, forcing him to fall back, the other swinging right above Juraviel's head. The poor goblin who had swung the doors didn't realize that a human was blocking one from opening all the way, didn't even realize that anybody was outside, until Juraviel, ducking and turning under the swinging door, lifted his bow and put an arrow right between the creature's eyes. The elf skipped right in, fluttering up with his wings. He grabbed the fast- dying goblin by the front of its ragged tunic and propped it in place.

Nightbird groaned and grumbled, finally getting around the awkward door, only to see Juraviel patting a finger frantically against pursed lips and pointing inside.

The ranger kept his calm and moved to the edge of the opening, peering around. He saw one other goblin, working with a block and tackle and a chain. There may have been others, for the inside of the barn was too cluttered by stalls and bales, a wagon and many other items, for the ranger to be sure. Leaning Hawkwing against the wall, he drew out Tempest and eased beside the goblin, then up to the tier inside the window. Silent as a hunting cat, the ranger made his careful way right behind the goblin working the block and tackle.

"Do you need help?" he asked.

The goblin spun, eyes-wide.

Tempest cut it down.

But there was indeed another goblin in the barn, and it came racing out of a nearby stall, trying to run right past the ranger. It jerked and stumbled as an arrow hit it, then staggered again, nearly going to its knees and slowing enough for Nightbird to catch up. The strong ranger grabbed the thing about the head, clamping his hand over its mouth, and pulled it down to the ground.

"Where is the prisoner?" he whispered in its ear.

The goblin squirmed and tried to scream out, but Nightbird grabbed it all the tighter, jerked its head back and forth. Then Juraviel was beside them, the elf holding his bow up beside the goblin's head, his arrow creasing the creature's temple. The goblin calmed considerably.

"If you yell out, you die," the ranger promised, and he eased his hand away.

"It hurts us! It hurts us!" the goblin moaned pitifully, and the two friends could hardly blame it, for it carried one of Juraviel's arrows in its shoulder, another in its thigh. Still, the ranger pressed his hand over the creature's mouth once more.

"The prisoner," he prompted, easing his hand away. "Where is the prisoner?"

"Kos-kosio Begulne have many prisoners," the goblin countered.

"The new prisoner," the ranger clarified. "The one Kos-kosio Begulne hates most of all."

"Nasty arrow from nasty elf!"

"Tell me," the ranger growled, "or my friend will put another arrow into you!"

"In the ground," the goblin squeaked. "In a hole in the ground."

"Buried?" the ranger asked anxiously. "Did Kos-kosio Begulne kill him?"

"Not buried," the goblin replied. "Not dead yet. In a room in a hole."

The ranger looked to Juraviel. "To store food," the ranger ex-plained, figuring out the riddle. "We did as much in Dundalis when I was a boy."

"A root cellar," the elf agreed, and both of them turned back to the prisoner.

"Where is this hole?" Nightbird asked, giving the goblin a shake.

The goblin shook its head; the ranger tightened his grip. "You will tell - " Nightbird started to say, but Juraviel, glancing out a small window beside the barn's front door, the one facing the town proper, interrupted him.

"Time is short," the elf explained. "The powries are astir."

"Last chance," Nightbird said to the goblin. "Where is the hole?"

But the goblin feared Kos-kosio Begulne more than it feared anything these two could do to it. It squirmed and started to cry out, and when the ranger clamped his hand over its mouth, it promptly bit him, struggling wildly to get away. It could not break free of the ranger's strong hold, though, so it tried to bite again, and started to cry out, however muffled the call might be.

A well-aimed thrust of Juraviel's dagger-sized sword ended that; the creature slumped to the floor and died.

"And how are we to find Roger Lockless now?" Nightbird asked.

"The goblin would not have told us more, even if it knew more," the elf replied. "It knew that I would kill it as soon as the informa-tion was divulged."

The ranger looked at his companion curiously. "And if we had promised its life in exchange?" he asked.

"Then we would have been lying," Juraviel replied evenly. "Speak not to me of mercy where goblins are concerned, Nightbird. I'll not suffer a goblin to live. Nor should you, who lived through the massacre of Dundalis, and through all the horrors since then."

Nightbird looked down at the dead goblin. Juraviel was right about the wicked race, of course, though as soon as they had taken the goblin prisoner and demanded information, it somehow seemed to change things. Goblins were horrid things, evil and merciless. They lived to destroy, and would attack humans on sight - any hu-mans, including... especially, children - as long as they believed they could win the fight. The ranger had never felt guilty about killing them, but if he had given this one his word that if it offered the information it would not be killed...

It was a perplexing thought, but one that would have to wait for another time, the ranger realized when he moved over to glance out the window beside the door. Juraviel hadn't been lying; a large group of powries and other monsters was moving through the town, heading generally north. The ranger got the distinct impres-sion they were searching for someone.

"What are you doing?" he asked the elf when he turned about to see Juraviel scampering about the barn, retrieving torches and their sconces.

Juraviel didn't bother to answer. Using rope, he secured the sconces to a board, then put the board across a beam in line with the front window, laying the torches in loosely over a thick blanket of hay.

"A diversion for the way out," the ranger reasoned.

"If indeed we come this way," the elf added.

Nightbird only nodded and did not press the point, trusting in his friend. In a few moments they set out, going through the same hay window that had brought them into the barn, carefully closing the doors behind them. They crept to the front edge of the building and peered around. Many enemies were about, mostly powries, and most of these were carrying blazing torches.

"Not the most promising of situations," the ranger offered, but he did see a way to get closer to the town center. Now, using the cat's-eye, he led the way, moving to the side of another building, then cutting through a narrow alley between it and another. Around the next corner, they came upon a powrie.

Tempest slashed down, angling in from the shoulder, cutting deep into the side of the creature's neck; Juraviel's sword stabbed in under the bottom rib, slanting upward to steal the creature's breath. Still, despite the coordinated and perfect attacks, the dwarf gave a stifled cry as it died.

The two companions exchanged nervous glances at the sound. "Move along, and quickly," the elf bade his friend.

Stepping fast, the ranger was looking down more than up, searching for some bulkhead that would indicate a root cellar, while Juraviel skittered off to the side, trying to keep track of any nearby monsters. That was why the normally alert Nightbird was surprised indeed when he heard a voice above him.

"Looking for something?" it casually asked.

Up went the ranger's eyes, up went his sword, but he halted the swing abruptly when he realized that it was no powrie, no goblin or giant talking, but a human, a skinny and short man reclining on the narrow ledge above a back door. The ranger quickly scanned the form, noting the wound on his leg, the scab and bruises on his face and on the one arm that was exposed. And yet, despite his obvious pain and the precarious, at best, perch, the man held himself easily, comfortably, with an air of confidence and ease. There could be only two answers to this riddle, and it seemed unlikely to the ranger that any human was in league with the powries.

"Roger Lockless, I presume," Nightbird said quietly.

"I see that my reputation has spread wide indeed," the man replied.

"We must be on the move," a nervous Juraviel remarked, coming out of the shadows. One look at the elf, and Roger, eyes going wide and mouth dropping open, overbalanced and tumbled from the ledge. He would have hit the ground hard, but the ranger was there below him, catching him and easing him to his feet.

"What is that?" Roger gasped.

"Answers will wait," the ranger replied sternly.

"We must be quick," Juraviel explained. "The monsters tighten their perimeter about us. They are searching door-to-door."

"They would not have caught me," Roger said with all confidence.

"Many powries," said the elf, "with torches to light the night as if it were day."

"They would not have caught me," Roger said again.

"They have giants to look on rooftops," Juraviel added.

"They would not have caught me," the unshakable thief re-peated a third time, snapping his fingers in the air.

A baying split the night air.

"And they have dogs," the ranger remarked.

"Oh, that," said Roger, deflating fast. "Get me away from this cursed place!"

The three started back down the alley, but it became obvious that Roger could not move quickly, could hardly support himself. Nightbird was right beside him, hooking the man's arm across his strong shoulder for support.

"Find me a walking stick," Roger begged.

The ranger shook his head, realizing that a walking stick wouldn't help much. He ducked low suddenly, pulling Roger's arm farther across his shoulders and hoisting him across his back.

"Lead on," the ranger bade Juraviel. "And with all speed."

The elf skittered to a corner, peered around it, then ran off almost at once, sprinting to the next building, and then the next in line. They heard a shout, the resonating voice of a giant, and though they couldn't be certain that the monster was even calling out about them, Juraviel, and then the ranger right behind him, broke into a dead run. The elf fitted an arrow to his bowstring as he went, and when they neared the barn, he slowed, took aim, and let fly, the arrow diving through the window beside the door, nocking hard into the loose board Juraviel had put in place and dropping the burning torches into the bed of hay. Before the three had even gone past the front corner of the barn, the light inside increased dramati-cally. Before they were out the other side, running along the fence of the corral, the flames burst through the front window and were licking through cracks in the roof.

They passed the corral and were soon into the woods, the ranger in front now and running with all speed, despite the man slung over his shoulder. They could hear the wild commotion back in Caer Tinella, powries, goblins, and giants running all about and calling out orders, most screaming for water, others for a chase of the es-caping human. And then they heard, more pointedly, the howling of several hounds closing on their trail.

"Run in, straight to the others," Juraviel instructed. "I will rid us of the troublesome dogs."

"Not so easy a task," Roger gasped as he bounced about.

"Not for one who has no wings," the elf replied with a wink, though Roger's balance was too precarious for him to notice.

Juraviel doubled back then, and the ranger ran on, disappearing into the forest night. The elf waited a moment, gauging the flight of his friend and the sound of the approaching dogs. He picked a tall and wide oak, the ground around it relatively free of brush. He scampered all about its base, making the scent thick, then used his wings to lift him to the lowest branch, carefully rubbing his smell on the bark all the way up. Then he ascended again to a new perch, and then again higher, and was halfway up when the leading hound reached the tree's base. It sniffed and whimpered, then stood up with its forepaws on the trunk and howled excitedly.

Juraviel called down to it, taunting it, and then for good measure put an arrow into the ground right beside the hound.

More hounds arrived, sniffing and circling, taking up the call.

Up higher went the elf, to the very top of the tree, to branches that hardly supported even his lithe form. He paused a moment to revel in the view, all the dark treetops spread far and wide before him. And then, secure that these hounds would remain howling at the scented tree, Juraviel let his wings carry him to a tree farther on, a long flight for an elf. Still, as soon as he found his perch, Juraviel knew he couldn't stop and rest, and so he flew off again to the next tree in line, and so on, until the calls of the hounds were far behind him. He came down then, needing to give his wings a rest, and scampered away on light feet through the forest night.

Later on, from the edges of the human camp, Juraviel saw that Elbryan and Roger had arrived safely. Many others were gathered about the pair, despite the late hour, listening to the tale of the rescue - or of the escape, to hear Roger tell it. Satisfied about a mission well done, Juraviel moved deeper into the forest, to the thick and soft boughs of a pine tree, and settled down for the night.

He was surprised when he awoke, before the dawn, to find that both Elbryan and Pony were already awake and gone from the camp.

The elf gave a smile, thinking that they needed some time alone with each other, a respite for lovers.

He wasn't far from the truth, for Elbryan and Pony were indeed intimate that morning - but not in the way Juraviel imagined. They were out in a secret clearing, performingbi'nelle dasada.

That morning, and every morning thereafter, and each time they danced, Pony followed Nightbird's movements a bit longer. It would be years before she could find his level of perfection, if ever, she knew, but she took heart, for each day brought improvement -??each day her lunge went a bit faster and a bit farther, her aim a bit more sure.

As the days passed, the ranger noted a change in the dance, subtle but definite. At first he worried that taking Pony under his guidance was perverting this very special gift of the Touel'alfar, but then he realized that the shift, far from undesirable, was a wonderful thing. For each day, he and his companion grew a bit more in tune with each other, each sensing the other's movements, learning to supplement and compliment every routine with the proper support.

Indeed their dance was beautiful, a sharing of heart and soul and, mostly, of trust.

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