The Demon Spirit

CHAPTER 15 Pride

"Maiyer Dek and the powrie, Kos-kosio," Pony said, feeling very pleased at the outcome in Caer Tinella. She, Elbryan, Tomas Gingerwart, and Belster O'Comely were sitting about a campfire in the refugee encampment, eagerly awaiting the return of Roger Lockless and the other scouts, trying to get a full measure of the impact of this night's raid on the monsters. The news would be good, all of them fully suspected. Several other monsters in addition to the two leaders had been slain, but they, even the three giants, were not overly important, not compared to the giant leader and the powrie leader - and especially given the fact that Maiyer Dek had been the one to kill Kos-kosio, and in full view of many powrie allies!

Before the coming of the demon dactyl, giants and powries had rarely allied, indeed had hated each other as much as each hated the humans. Bestesbulzibar had halted that feud, and with the fall of the demon, the alliance had only continued out of necessity, since both armies were deep into the human lands.

But it was a strained thing, an alliance waiting for an excuse that it might turn into a feud.

"If we had convinced Maiyer Dek to join with us, we could not have gotten him to aid us any more than he did," Elbryan remarked with a chuckle. "My hopes soared when I saw him throw the powrie leader into the fire."

"And with Maiyer Dek and three of his giant kin dead," Pony added, "we can expect that the powries, angry at the giants, now have the clear upper hand."

"Except that goblins are more friendly to giants than to the wicked dwarves," Tomas Gingerwart noted. "Even though giants often eat them!"

"True enough," Elbryan admitted. "Perhaps the sides are fairly equal, then, for Caer Tinella was swarming with the wretched gob-lins. But unless one of great charm can be found among the ranks, and quickly, I suspect the fighting in the town has only just begun."

"Here's hoping they kill each other to the last," Belster O'Comely said, lifting a mug of ale - compliments of Roger Lockless - into the air, then taking a tremendous swallow, draining the mug.

"So they are weaker, and our force has grown by a score ready to fight," Tomas put in.

"A score ready to help the others get past the towns and to the southland," Elbryan corrected. "We, all of us, have seen enough battle."

"To Palmaris!" Belster roared, finishing with a loud belch.

Tomas Gingerwart was not amused. "A month ago, even a week ago, even two days ago, I would have been satisfied with that," he explained. "But Caer Tinella is our home, and if our enemies are truly weakened, it may be time for us to reclaim the town. That was the plan, was it not? To wait until we took a measure of our enemies and then strike?"

Elbryan and Pony exchanged nervous glances, then looked back to the resolute man, truly empathizing with his desires.

"This is a discussion for later," the ranger said calmly. "We do not know how strongly the monsters remain entrenched in Caer Tinella."

Tomas snorted. "You got in," he said. "How much more devas-tating might the raid have been if all of our warriors were there to fight beside you?"

"Devastating to both sides, I fear," Pony replied. "We stung the monsters and freed the prisoners only because of the element of surprise. If Maiyer Dek had seen a greater force approaching, he would have ordered every one of the captured men slain, and the defense of Caer Tinella would have been more stubborn by far."

Tomas snorted again, not wanting to hear the negative pos-turing. By his thinking, if Elbryan and Pony, their little unseen friend Juraviel and Roger Lockless, could exact such a toll, then he and his warriors could finish the task.

Elbryan and Pony looked to each other again, and silently agreed to let it go at that. They understood Tomas's feelings, recog-nized that he had to believe that his home was not lost to him, and they both trusted that the man was sensible enough to listen to their argument if skirting the town and running to the south seemed the more prudent move.

Belster O'Comely, fearing mounting tension, led the discussion in another direction then, pondering the fate of the monstrous army across all the lands. "If we've been hitting at them so hard here, then it seems to me that others are taking them down, as well," he said. "Ho, but I'll be back in the Howling Sheila in Dundalis in the next spring, I'm betting!" he finished, then filled and drained his mug once again.

"It is possible," the ranger said earnestly, his optimism sur-prising Pony. "If the monstrous army disintegrates, the King will wish the Timberlands quickly reclaimed."

"And Sheila will howl again!" Belster roared, for in his drink-induced state, he had forgotten all pledges to live out his life quietly in the safety of Palmaris. His excitement brought others over to the campfire, most bearing foodstuffs and beverages.

The conversation took a lighthearted turn then, became the retelling of anecdotes from happier times, before the monstrous in-vasion, and what had started as a serious wait for important infor-mation became a sort of victory celebration. Elbryan and Pony said little, preferring to sit back and listen to the chatter of the others, often looking to each other and nodding. They had already arranged a meeting with Juraviel at the break of dawn in the meadow by the pines, and after they heard what the elf had to say, after they came to understand the truth of their enemy's strength in the two towns, they could make their decisions.

The night deepened, the fires burned low, and most of the folk retired to their bedrolls. Finally, only an hour before the dawn, the scouts returned, led by an exuberant Roger Lockless. "All the gi-ants are gone," the young man proclaimed. "Every one! Driven off by the powries - and they hardly even put up a fight!"

"They did not want to be here in the first place," Pony reasoned. "They prefer their holes in the steep mountains of the Wilderlands."

Tomas Gingerwart gave a shout of victory.

"And what of the goblins?" Elbryan asked calmly, interrupting the celebration before it could begin. He didn't want Roger's ex-citement to steal the moment and lead Tomas and all the refugees down a course to absolute destruction. Even without giants, the re-maining powries might prove too formidable.

"There was a fight and some were killed," Roger replied, not missing a beat. "Others went scattering into the forest."

"And still others remained with the powries," Elbryan reasoned.

" Yes, but - "

"And few, very few, powries were killed?" the ranger pressed.

"The goblins who remained will flee at first sign of battle," Roger said confidently. "They only stay because they're afraid of the bloody caps."

"Armies have won great victories inspired purely by fear," Pony said dryly.

Roger glared at her. "They are ready to be taken," he said evenly.

"We are a long way from making such a claim," the ranger was quick to reply, pointedly cutting off Tomas Gingerwart with an up-raised hand as he spoke. Elbryan rose to stand before Roger. "Our responsibilities are too great to make such a quick judgment."

"As you made when you went into Caer Tinella alone?" the young man spat back.

"I did what I thought necessary," Elbryan replied quietly, calmly. He could feel the gazes of many people settling on him and Roger, and any conflict between them would obviously prove a source of great discomfort. These people had come to trust and love Roger Lockless, and he had truly done much for them in the weeks of their exile. But if he was wrong now, if he was letting his desire to lead the folk to victory overrule good sense, then all of his previous exploits would be for naught, for all of the refugees would likely soon be dead.

"As did I in rescuing the thirty captured soldiers!" Roger said forcefully, and loudly.

"All by yourself?" Pony had to put in.

Elbryan put up his hand, quieting Pony, quieting all about him. "It is too early to make the judgment of whether to attack the towns or circumvent them," he announced. "We will know more, much more, with the light of day." The ranger, thinking and hoping that the discussion was finished then, turned and started away.

"We take back Caer Tinella," Roger Lockless declared, and there were more than a few agreeing calls. "And Landsdown," the young man went on. "And when we have the towns in our posses-sion once more, we send word to Palmaris, that the King's army might reinforce our position."

"The Kingsmen will not come this far north," Pony argued. "Or at least, that is not something upon which we should stake our entire existence. Not yet. Not while Palmaris is under threat of invasion."

"How can you know?" Roger asked sternly.

"I served in the King's army," Pony admitted. "In the Kingsmen and in the Coastpoint Guards. I understand their priorities, and I can assure you that measured against the value of Palmaris, second city of Honce- the-Bear and the gateway of the Masur Delaval, Caer Tinella and Landsdown are not among those priorities. If Pal-maris falls, then the way is open all the way to the King's seat in Ursal."

That took a bit of Roger's bluster away. He fidgeted for a few moments, thinking up a retort, but before he could deliver it, Tomas Gingerwart cut in. "We are all weary," the man said loudly, com-manding the attention of all nearby. "It is said that good news can be as tiring as bad, and either as tiring as a week of hard work."

"Oh, true enough," Belster O'Comely agreed.

"So our spirits are heightened, our thoughts hopeful," Tomas went on. "But the ranger and Jilseponie are correct. This is not the time to decide."

"Our enemies are disorganized and reeling," Roger argued.

"As they will remain, for another day at least," Tomas answered bluntly. "We'll not attack the towns in the light of day anyway, so let us get our rest now, and hopefully we will see things more clearly in the morning."

Elbryan locked gazes with Tomas and nodded, sincerely grateful that the man had taken such levelheaded control. Then he motioned to Pony and the pair walked off, heading for the pines and the meadow, and a clearer picture of what remained of their adversaries.

Roger Lockless waited in the camp for a short while, then, when no one was paying much attention to him, he stole away, on the trail of the ranger and the woman and, he knew, their private scout.

He caught up to Elbryan and Pony in a meadow lined with pine trees, and blushed deeply, reconsidering his course, when the man and woman embraced each other and kissed passionately. Roger breathed easier when they broke off the clench.

If he had examined his feelings a bit more closely, and more honestly, Roger would have realized that the kiss bothered him more than it should have, that not only did he not wish to spy on such a private moment, but especially not one involving this beau-tiful woman. But Roger wasn't capable of that level of introspec-tion where these two newcomers were concerned, not yet, and so, seeing the embrace finished, he crept closer into position, and was not surprised in the least when a melodious voice came down to the pair from the branches of a nearby pine.

"Fortune favored us this night," Juraviel explained. "For the gi-ants are gone, all of them, and a fair number of goblins, too. The only better scenario would have been an open brawl between the giants and the powries."

"But that did not happen," Elbryan replied. "Thus, we must as-sume that the powrie force is still considerable."

"Indeed it is," Juraviel confirmed. "Though their leader has been roasted!"

"The folk wish to attack Caer Tinella, to reclaim it as their home," Pony put in.

"Is that not correct, Roger Lockless?" Elbryan added, recog-nizing that the young man was about.

Roger went even lower to the ground, put his face right in the grass.

"I do grow weary of this one's spying," Juraviel remarked, flut-tering down from the tree.

"Well, come out, then," said Pony. "Since you wished to hear what we would say, you should at least join in the conversation."

Roger told himself repeatedly that there was no way these three could see him, no way that Elbryan and Pony could know, without doubt, that he had followed them.

"Stay with your face buried in the grass, then," Elbryan said with a chuckle. "I am against the attack," he offered to Juraviel.

"And with good reason," the elf replied. "If the war was still a stalemate, then we might consider striking such a blow. But I doubt that Caer Tinella serves as anything more than a temporary home for the powries and few goblins that remain. Certainly, it is not a supply base for any coordinated monstrous force. I see nothing to gain by attacking -??the thought of reclaiming and holding the town at this point is purely foolhardy - and everything to lose. Let us not underestimate the strength of the force remaining in Caer Tinella."

"I.think it wiser to skirt the town and flee to the southland," El-bryan added.

"It is likely that the road south will prove open all the way to Pal-maris," Juraviel replied. "Though how long it will remain that way, I cannot say."

"Convincing the townsfolk to abandon their homes will not be easy," Pony explained.

"But we shall," Elbryan assured her. He looked in the direction of Roger Lockless as he spoke, thinking that the proclamation might at last bring the lad from hiding.

"Perhaps you cared not for your own home!" the young man said, jumping up and storming across to face the ranger. "But we are loyal to Caer Tinella!"

"And so you shall return to Caer Tinella," Elbryan said calmly. "This war will not last much longer, and as soon as the region about Palmaris is declared secure, then I expect the King to send the army north."

"And what will they find?" Roger said, moving right up to the much larger Elbryan. "Burned-out skeletons of our homes?"

"Rebuild," Elbryan calmly replied.

Roger scoffed at the notion.

"Our own home of Dundalis was sacked years ago," Pony said. "Then it was rebuilt, by Belster and his companions. And now it has been sacked again."

"And so it shall be built again," Elbryan said resolutely. "Houses can be put back up; people are forever lost."

"My own family was lost in such a raid," Pony said, taking the young man gently by the elbow.

"And my own," Elbryan added. "And all of our friends."

Roger's visage softened for just a moment as he regarded Pony, but then he pulled away, anger again filling his eyes. "Tell me not of your grief," he snapped. "I know all about losing family and friends. And I am not afraid now. The dwarves are in Caer Tinella, my home, and so I shall go there and get rid of them, every one! You delayed this, but after the success of our attack, you cannot stop it. The folk will follow me, Nightbird," he said, poking him-self in the chest. "You think yourself the leader, but it was Roger Lockless, not you, who rescued the prisoners in the last raid, just as it has been Roger Lockless all along, feeding the folk, stealing right from under the big nose of stupid Kos-kosio Begulne. Me!" he yelled, poking his chest again. "And you will not steer them away from Caer Tinella. They will follow me."

"To their doom," the ranger said evenly. "Is this about Caer Tinella, Roger, or is it about who leads?"

Roger waved a hand at him dismissively. "We're not done with this, Nightbird," he said, spitting the elvish title with contempt, and he turned and walked back across the field.

Pony started to follow, her face tight with anger, but Elbryan held up his arm to stop her. "He is young and confused," the ranger explained. "He thought he had his place carved out among the folk, and then we came along."

"He was never formally a leader of the group," said Juraviel. "That lies more to Tomas Gingerwart and Belster O'Comely. Roger was, rather, working outside the limits of the band. Your ar-rival should not have affected that role."

"In his own mind, he was the hero of the group," Pony reasoned.

"Heis indeed," Elbryan corrected.

"Agreed," said Juraviel. "But he does not understand that there is room for others."

"Roger Lockless!" Elbryan called loudly.

Roger, at the far edge of the meadow, stopped in his tracks and turned about.

"This must be settled, here and now," the ranger called. "For the good of all the folk." Even as he spoke the words with deter-mination, though, his expression revealed his trepidation. "Give Juraviel your sword," he instructed Pony with a weary sigh.

The woman considered the request, and the look on her lover's face. "Now is not the time," she replied.

"It has to be," the ranger said. "Give Juraviel your sword." He paused and looked from Pony to the approaching Roger, trying to get an even deeper measure of Roger's motivations. "And be gone from here," he added to Pony. "You should not be a witness to this. For his sake."

Pony slid her small sword from its sheath and handed it to the elf, all the while staring Elbryan in the eye. "If you hurt him ..." she warned, and she turned and walked into the cover of the pines.

Elbryan was wise enough to worry when Pony left a threat unfinished.

"Be careful," Juraviel cautioned. "There may be grim conse-quences if you take all of the man's dignity."

"I hope it does not come to that," Elbryan said sincerely. "For I do indeed fear the consequences. But this split cannot continue be-tween us. We cannot ask folk in so desperate a situation to make a choice between Roger and me."

"You think Roger will listen to you?"

"I will make Roger listen to me," Elbryan assured him.

"You walk a fine line here, Nightbird," the elf said.

"A line that you and Tuntun showed me well," the ranger replied.

Juraviel nodded, conceding the point. "Make him start it," the elf advised. "If it is to happen."

Elbryan nodded and then straightened as Roger, bold as ever, strode defiantly to stand right before him.

"I grow weary of our bickering, Roger Lockless, who claims leadership of the group," Elbryan called. "In the last raid on Caer Tinella, we showed that we can work well together."

"We showed that my priorities, and not your own, are for the betterment of the folk," the young man replied.

Elbryan took the insult in stride, recognizing the frustration be-hind it. "We both served valuable functions in the town," he said quietly and calmly. "You freed the prisoners, and for that, all of us, myself included, are indeed grateful. And I defeated Maiyer Dek, a blow from which our enemies will not soon recover."

"But I could have accomplished my task all the more easily if you were not there!" the young man said accusingly. "Yet did you even ask me to go? Where my skills were the ones most needed, did the great Nightbird even inquire if I might be interested in the mission?"

"I did not even know that they held prisoners," the ranger replied honestly. "Else my plan would have been greatly different."

"Yourplan," Roger spat. "Since you arrived I have heard nothing but your plans!"

"And are we not better off?"

Again Roger spat, this time on Elbryan's feet. "I do not need you, Nightbird," he sneered. "I wish that you and your strange little friend would just disappear into the forest."

"But not Jilseponie," Juraviel noted.

Roger's face turned red. "Her, too!" he said unconvincingly.

Elbryan realized that it would be better to get off of this delicate subject. "But we are not leaving," he said. "Not until the folk are safe in Palmaris, or until the army has marched north to reclaim the towns. I am a fact of your life, Roger Lockless. And if I am put in a position of leadership, one that I have earned through my work in the northland and through my experience, then know that I will not abandon that position for the sake of your foolish pride."

Roger moved as if to strike out, but held his anger, though his face continued to flush.

"My responsibility is to them, not to you," Elbryan calmly ex-plained. "There is a place for you among this band, a very valuable place."

"As your lackey?"

"But know this," the ranger went on, ignoring the foolish com-ment, "I will argue against any fight for Caer Tinella at this time. Fleeing from the area is the proper course for the folk, and I expect and demand that you will support me in this decision."

Roger eyed the man directly, obviously surprised that the ranger had presumed to give him a direct command.

"I will accept nothing less from you, Roger Lockless."

"You threaten me? As did Pon ... Jilseponie with her stupid curse?"

"I tell you the truth, and nothing less," Elbryan replied. "This is too important - "

Before the ranger could finish, Roger exploded into motion, launching a punch at his jaw. Not surprised in the least, Elbryan knifed a hand up in front of his face and pushed it out slightly, just enough to deflect Roger's blow harmlessly wide of the mark. The ranger's open hand then shot forward, slapping Roger hard across the face, staggering him backward.

Roger drew out a dagger and started forward, but skidded to a quick stop, facing the angry glow of Tempest.

"A fight between us would be pointless," the ranger said. "You have admitted that you have never killed, yet, regrettably, I have lived by the sword for a long, long time." That said, Elbryan calmly sheathed Tempest.

"I can fight!" Roger yelled at him.

"I do not doubt that," Elbryan replied. "But your real talents lay elsewhere, in scouting, in hindering our enemy with your wits."

"Wits you apparently do not trust with any important decision!"

Elbryan shook his head. "This is battle, not thievery."

"And I am nothing more than a common thief?"

"You act now like a spoiled child," the ranger said. "If you at-tack me, and kill me, or if I kill you, then what might be the cost to those folk who look to us two to lead them?"

"I do not wish to kill you," Roger informed him. "Only to hurt you!" And on he came, dagger extended.

Elbryan's left hand slapped out right under the blade, catching Roger by the forearm. Before the young man could react, the ranger whipped his free hand across in front of him and brought his left, and Roger's arm, across the other way. Roger felt a sting in his hand, and then suddenly he was free. He caught his balance immediately and tried to come up with a countering strike, but no-ticed he was no longer holding the dagger, that Elbryan held it in his right hand.

The ranger's left shot out, slapping Roger three times in rapid succession. "You care to try again?" Elbryan asked, flipping the knife back to Roger's nimble grasp.

"Dignity," Juraviel whispered behind the ranger.

Realizing that he might be pushing this too far, that he was in-sulting the young man, Elbryan reached back and took Pony's sword from Juraviel, then turned and threw it so it stuck in the ground at Roger's feet. "If you wish to continue this, then take up a real weapon," he said.

Roger reached for the sword, then hesitated, looking up to match the ranger's gaze. "I can fight," he said. "But these are your weapons, and not mine. You offer me Pony's ordinary and small sword, while you wield the magical blade - "

Before he could finish his protest, Elbryan, in one fluid move-ment, drew out Tempest and stuck it in the ground next to Pony's sword, then took the other sword in hand.

"This will be finished, here and now," the ranger said evenly. "It should be so without a fight, but if that is what it takes...

"Pick up the weapon, Roger Lockless," Elbryan said. "Or do not. But either way, understand that in the matter of Caer Tinella, my decision shall stand. And that decision is to bypass the town, and Landsdown, as well, and get these folk to the safety of Palmaris."

Roger was hardly listening to anything beyond the ranger's first sentence. This was not about Caer Tinella, it was about pride. It was about a position of leadership that Roger thought he deserved, and it was about a woman -??

Roger stopped his train of thought, not willing to go there. He glanced up at Elbryan only briefly, then put his hand about the crafted hilt of Tempest, the silverel pommel wrapped in blue leather. This was about his passage to manhood, he decided, about his courage or fear, about being in control or being controlled - and not by Elbryan, but by his own cowardice.

He pulled the blade from the ground and fell back to a balanced stance, Tempest at the ready.

"First blood?" he asked.

"Until one yields," Juraviel explained, to Roger's surprise. Under the normal guidelines, the sword etiquette, first blood would put an end to such a challenge, but in this instance Juraviel wanted to make certain that Roger Lockless learned a valuable lesson.

Elbryan held his ground calmly; he could tell from Roger's ex-pression that the impatient young man would strike first and strike hard. Predictably, Roger charged, skidding up short and launching Tempest in a wide-swinging arc.

Elbryan reached across his body with the blade of his sword in-verted, angled down. As Tempest connected, the ranger skillfully "caught" the sword with his own blade and retracted his arm to somewhat absorb the shock of the strike - else, he feared, Tempest might have shorn his blade in two! Then the ranger smoothly turned his blade up, lifting his hand as he went so that Roger's at-tack sailed harmlessly high.

Elbryan could have stepped ahead then, and with a short stroke ended the fight. He started to make that exact move, but remem-bered Juraviel's warning and stepped back instead.

On came Roger, not even realizing that he had already lost the contest. The young man's sword work this time was more decep-tive, Tempest stabbing for Elbryan up high, then down low, then low again, and, after a feint up high, low a third time in succession.

Elbryan simply moved his head to avoid the first attack, slapped at the blade once and again to defeat the next two, then hopped the last. Now the ranger did counter, coming forward suddenly as soon as he landed from his slight jump and swinging at Roger in a wide arc, allowing the young man the time to get Tempest in the way to parry.

Elbryan worked furiously, in widely exaggerated and clearly re-vealed moves, and nimble Roger easily picked off each attack, even managed to counter on two occasions, the first surprising El-bryan and almost slipping through his defenses. The ranger recov-ered quickly, though, slapping his free hand against the flat of Tempest's blade, though he did get a slight nick on the side of his hand in the process.

"In a contest of first blood, I already won," Roger bragged.

The ranger sublimated his pride and let the insult pass. He had no time nor desire for such taunting games, for he had to focus on the challenge of this particular fight - not concerning whether he would win or lose, but to make sure that neither he nor Roger was injured in the process. Elbryan had to choreograph this one perfectly.

Another flurry ensued, the two men slapping their swords re-peatedly in the air between them, picking off each other's blows, with Roger gradually gaining an advantage, the ranger backing steadily. Spurred by the gain, Roger pressed onward even more forcefully, launching Tempest in mighty swings, inadvertently opening his defenses.

Elbryan did not take any of those openings, just continued to back, and to bend a bit, allowing the smaller man to rise above him.

Roger yelped with satisfaction and came on hard, slashing Tem-pest in a downward, diagonal manner.

Up came the ranger, flipping his sword to his left hand and par-rying strong, then, in the blink of an eye, turning the blade right over Roger's halted sword, then driving the tip back under, and whipping the blades out wide so forcefully that Tempest flew from Roger's grasp. Elbryan let his own blade fall free, as well.

The young man dove for the sword; Elbryan dove right in front of him, rolling a somersault, pivoting as he landed and coming right back in. As Roger reached for the sword, his right arm was jerked back, bent at the elbow, Elbryan's right arm sliding under it. Before the young man could react with his free left arm, Elbryan's left slipped under his armpit, then up and around the back of Roger's neck. At the same time, the ranger stepped one leg past Roger and jerked him to the side, over his knee. They went down hard, Elbryan on top of Roger, the young man's arms helplessly pinned behind his back.

"Yield," the ranger instructed.

"Not fair," Roger complained.

Elbryan stood up, hauling Roger to his feet with him, then re-leased him, shoving him forward. Roger immediately went for Tempest.

Elbryan started a silent call to the sword, which would have floated it back to his hand, but decided against the move, letting Roger retrieve the blade, then spin, facing him squarely.

"Not fair," Roger gasped again. "This is a sword fight, not a con-test of wrestling strength."

"The hold was merely a continuation of the swordplay," Elbryan replied. "Would you have preferred getting stuck with a sword?"

"You could not!" Roger argued. "Your parry cost us both our weapons!"

Elbryan turned to Juraviel, and saw that the elf recognized the truth of the situation, that he had fairly won. But the elf said, "The lad is correct," and Elbryan, seeing that Roger had learned no lesson here, understood and approved. "Thus the fight is not ended."

"Go and retrieve your sword," Roger said to Elbryan.

"No need," Juraviel interjected, and his tone was a bit too jovial for Elbryan's liking. "The swords were dropped and you were the first to retrieve. Take the advantage, young Roger!"

Elbryan glared at Juraviel, thinking the elf might be pushing things a bit.

Roger came ahead three steps, sword raised in line with Elbryan's face. "Yield," the young man said, smiling widely.

"Because you have the advantage?" Elbryan replied. "As you had with the dagger?"

The poignant reminder sent Roger leaping ahead, but the ranger sprang out, too, soaring in a dive right past Roger, spinning up to his feet and scrambling to his sword before the young man could reverse direction and catch up.

Roger charged right in, though, furious at his own mistake, swinging wildly. Metal rang against metal many, many times, Elbryan neatly picking off every blow.

Fast tiring, Roger tried one of the ranger's tricks, flipping Tem-pest to his left hand and slashing in.

Elbryan's backhand parry nearly knocked him in a complete circle, and when Roger recovered, raising Tempest defensively be-fore him, he found that the ranger was not there.

And then he felt the tip of a sword against the back of his neck.

"Yield," Elbryan instructed.

Roger tensed, calculating a move, but Elbryan only dug the tip in a bit deeper, ending any such thoughts.

Roger threw Tempest to the ground and stepped away, turning an angry glare on the ranger - a look that grew even darker when Elbryan unexpectedly started laughing.

"Well fought!" the ranger congratulated. "I did not think you would be so strong with the blade. It seems that you are a man of many talents, Roger Lockless."

"You easily defeated me," the young man spat back.

Elbryan's smile was unrelenting. "Not as easily as you might believe," he said, and he looked to Juraviel. "The shadow dive," he explained.

"Indeed," replied the elf, cuing in to the ranger's reference, re-membering when he had seen Elbryan beaten on the sparring field by Tallareyish Issinshine, the elf using just such a move. "It is a move that will work two out of three times," Juraviel went on, speaking to Roger. "Or at least, in two out of three attempts, it will not bring absolute disaster."

Juraviel turned back to Elbryan. "It does not do my old heart well to see you, Nightbird, whom we elves trained to the highest levels, forced to resort to such a desperate maneuver to save defeat at the hands of a mere child!" he scolded.

Elbryan and the elf looked to Roger, both thinking they had done well here, that the issue about the towns, and the pecking order be-tween the two of them, had been settled.

Roger glowered at the ranger and the elf for a few moments, then spat on the ground at Elbryan's feet, turned and stormed away.

Elbryan gave a great sigh. "He is not an easy one to convince," he said.

"Perhaps he recognized your deception as easily as did I," Juraviel reasoned.

"What deception?"

"You could have beaten him at any time, in any manner," the elf stated bluntly.

"Two out of three," the ranger corrected.

"When you fought Tallareyish, perhaps," Juraviel was quick to answer. "In that instance, however, Tallareyish's maneuver had been wrought purely of desperation, for you had clearly gained the upper hand."

"And this time?"

"This time the shadow dive was used for no better reason than to save some of Roger's dignity, a tactic I am not certain will prove effective."

"But - " Elbryan started to protest, for Juraviel had bade him do just that before the fight began.

"Just take care that your 'lesson' doesn't impart a false sense of ability in Roger," the elf warned. "If he goes into battle against a powrie, he'll not likely come out of it alive."

Elbryan conceded that point, looking to the place where Roger had exited the field. That seemed the least of their troubles, how-ever, for, given Roger's attitude, it seemed it would not be easy to convince the folk to go around the two occupied towns.

"Go and give Pony back her blade," Juraviel instructed.

Too caught up in the moment, trying to figure out how he might better correct this situation with Roger, Elbryan didn't even reply, just retrieved and sheathed Tempest and walked off into the night.

"While I go and have a talk with Roger Lockless," Juraviel fin-ished under his breath when the ranger had walked away.

The elf caught up with Roger soon after, in a root-strewn clearing beneath the heavy boughs of a wide-spreading elm tree.

"Etiquette and simple good manners would have demanded that you congratulate the winner," Juraviel explained, lighting on a branch right above the young man.

"Be gone, elf," Roger replied.

Juraviel hopped down to the ground right in front of the young man. "Be gone?" he echoed incredulously.


"Save your threats, Roger Lockless," the elf answered calmly. "I have seen you fight and am not impressed."

"I brought your wonderful Nightbird to a near standstill."

"He could have beaten you at any time," the elf interrupted. "You know that."

Roger straightened up, and though he was not tall by human standards, he still towered over the elf.

"Nightbird is as strong as any man alive," the elf went on. "And, trained by the Touel'alfar, he is as nimble with the blade as any. He is the complete warrior, and could have turned your own blade back in your face, had he so chosen. Or he might have simply caught your arm and crushed it in his iron grasp."

"So says his lackey elf!" Roger cried.

Juraviel scoffed at the absurdity of the statement. "Have you al-ready forgotten your first fight?"

Roger's expression screwed up with curiosity.

"What happened when you went at Nightbird with the dagger?" the elf asked. "Is that not proof enough?"

A thoroughly frustrated Roger punched out at Juraviel. The elf stepped inside the blow, caught Roger by the wrist, then went right behind the young man, turning Roger's arm behind his back and grabbing him by the hair with his free hand. A tug on both arm and hair had Roger turning about, and Juraviel promptly slammed his face into the trunk of the elm.

"I am not Nightbird," Juraviel warned. "I am not human, and hold little compassion for fools!" With that, Juraviel slammed Roger into the tree once more, then spun the man about and hit him with a backhand that sat him on the ground.

"You know the truth, Roger Lockless," he scolded. "You know that Nightbird is your better in these matters, and that his judgment concerning our course should be heeded. Yet you are so blinded by your own foolish pride that you will doom your own people before admitting it!"

"Pride?" Roger yelled back. "Was it not Roger Lockless who went into Caer Tinella to rescue - "

"And why did Roger Lockless go into Caer Tinella?" Juraviel interrupted. "On both occasions. For the sake of the poor prisoners, or out of fear that he would be upstaged by this new hero?"

Roger stuttered over a response, but Juraviel wasn't listening anyway. "He could have beaten you at any moment, in any manner," the elf said again, and then he turned and walked away, leaving battered Roger sitting under the elm tree.

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