The Demon Spirit

CHAPTER 28 When Duty Calls

The wind was brisk across the wide waters of the Masur Delaval as Elbryan, Pony, and the disguised Juraviel boarded the ferry in Pal-maris, with Juraviel getting more than a few curious looks. Pony held him close, though, pretending he was her son - her ailing son, and since disease was a too common and much feared event in Honce-the-Bear, no one dared move too close.

In truth, Juraviel's moans held more than a little touch of re-alism, for the heavy blanket wrapped about him was sorely bending his wings.

The huge sails unfurled and the square-decked ship eased out of Palmaris harbor, wood creaking and waves snapping sharply against her low sides. There were more than fifty passengers standing about the wide and flat deck, with the crew of seven working methodically, lazily, having made this passage twice every day, when the weather permitted, for years.

"They say the ferry is a good place to gather information," Ju-raviel whispered to Elbryan and Pony. "People crossing the river are often afraid, and frightened people often echo aloud their own fears in the hope that another will speak comfort."

"I will move among them," Elbryan offered, and he slipped away from his "family."

"Yer boy sick?" came a question almost immediately when the ranger moved near a group of five adults, three men and two women, fishermen, by the looks of them.

"We have been in the north," the ranger explained. "Our home was sacked, as was our entire village. For a month and more we have been dodging powries and goblins, scraping for food where we might, going hungry more often than not. My boy, Belli... Belli ate something foul, a mushroom, I would guess, and has not yet recovered, nor may he ever."

That brought some sympathetic nods, particularly from the women.

"And where are ye going?" the same man asked.

"East," Elbryan answered cryptically. "And you?" he asked quickly, before the man could press the point.

"Just to Amvoy," the man replied, referring to the city across the water, the destination of the ferry.

"We all live in Amvoy," one of the women put in.

"Just visiting friends in Palmaris, now that it's all calmed down," the man added.

Elbryan nodded and looked away, out to the wide waters, the docks of Palmaris fast receding as the lumbering ship found some favorable and strong winds.

"Take care if ye're going beyond Amvoy," the woman offered.

"We are."

"To St.-Mere-Abelle," the fisherman reasoned.

Elbryan snapped an incredulous stare over the man, but was wise enough to hide it quickly, not wanting to give anything defi-nite away.

"That's where I'd go if I had a sick boy," the man went on, and neither he nor his companions caught the expression on the ranger's face. "They say them monks got cures for anything, though they're not quick in giving them out!"

That brought a laugh from his companions, except from the woman who had been talking, who looked at the ranger earnestly. "Ye take care if ye're to go east of Amvoy," she said again, more deliberately. "There've been reports o' powrie bands roving the land. And them monsters're not to care for yer sick boy, don't ye doubt."

"And one nasty band o' goblins," the man added. "Rumor says they were left on their own by the powries, and now they're run-ning scared."

"Nothing more dangerous than scared goblins," another man put in.

The ranger gave her a grateful smile. "I assure you," he said, "I am no novice in dealing with powries, or goblins." With that, he bowed and moved about the deck. He heard again people ex-pressing concerns about roving bands in the east, but garnered nothing truly valuable.

He made his way around, coming back to Pony and Juraviel. The elfreclined with his blanket tightly wrapping him, while Pony was at work tending the horses, for Greystone, in particular, had grown quite uncomfortable with the ferry rolling in the rough water. The horse stamped his foot repeatedly, snorting and whin-nying, and sweat was beginning to glisten about his muscled neck.

Elbryan went to him and took a firm hold on his bridle. He gave a powerful tug, straight down, and that steadied the horse momen-tarily. Soon enough, though, Greystone was right back to stamping and tossing his head.

Symphony, meanwhile, had calmed considerably, and when Elbryan found the moment to consider the stallion, and Pony bent low against Symphony's neck, her cheek to the magical turquoise, he understood. Pony had found communication with Symphony, an understanding, and managed to impress upon the spirited stal-lion the need for calm.

Greystone gave a tug that nearly launched Elbryan away. The horse tried to rear up, but the ranger dug in and pulled all the harder.

Several other people, a pair of crewmen among them, came over then, trying to help steady the beast, for a nervous horse on an open ship deck could be a dangerous companion indeed.

But then Symphony took control of the situation, pushing past Elbryan and laying his head across the top of Greystone's neck. Both horses snorted and neighed, Greystone stamped the deck again and tried to rear, but Symphony would have none of that, pressing down harder, even lifting one front leg over the smaller stallion's back, holding Greystone in place.

Then, to the amazement of all the onlookers, Elbryan and Pony included, Symphony came down from Greystone's back and nuzzled up to the horse, snorting and shaking his head. Greystone issued a few more protests, but they sounded halfhearted.

And then both horses were calm.

"Good horse," one man muttered to Elbryan as he started away.

Another asked if Elbryan wanted to sell Symphony.

"Avelyn's stone proves itself useful now and then," Pony re-marked when the three friends were alone with the horses again.

"I understand the communication between yourself and Symphony, for we have each done that before," the ranger said. "But am I wrong in believing that Symphony actually conveyed your message to Greystone?"

"Something of that nature, so it would seem," Pony replied, shaking her head, for she had no practical answers.

"How full of arrogance you humans are," Juraviel remarked, drawing looks from both of them. "Does it so surprise you that horses can communicate with each other, at least in a rudimentary way? How would they have survived all these centuries if they could not?"

Elbryan and Pony, defeated by the simple logic, just laughed and let it go at that. The ranger's expression, though, changed quickly, back to serious.

"There is talk of powrie bands roving the eastern reaches of the kingdom," he explained. "And of one band of particularly trouble-some goblins."

"Could we have expected any less?" Juraviel replied.

"From what I could gather, it would seem that our enemies east of the river are in similar disarray," the ranger went on. "The powries deserted the goblins, so say the rumors, and the goblins are on a rampage as much out of fear as out of their generally wicked nature."

Juraviel nodded, but Pony quickly added, "You mean that it would seem as thoughsome of our enemies are in disarray. And by my estimation, neither goblins nor powries rank as our worst enemy at this time."

That painful reminder of their destination and the potential di-saster they faced at the place quieted them all and cast a somber pall over the group. They spent the next, and last, hour of the voyage in relative silence, tending to the horses, and all were glad when the ferry at last docked in the small city of Amvoy.

The ship's captain, standing beside the entrance to the gang-plank, reiterated warnings about goblins and powries to all the pas-sengers as they disembarked, bidding them all take great care if they traveled out of the city.

Needing no supplies, the friends cut right through the walled city to the eastern gate, where again they were warned about po-tential dangers in the open lands beyond. Their passage was not hindered, though, and so they rode out from Amvoy that very after-noon, the two horses quickly putting miles behind them.

The terrain here was far less wooded than that north of Palmaris.

The land was more cultivated, crisscrossed by wide roads, some covered in cobblestones - not that any were really needed, for the grassy fields were easily crossed. Paralleling the road from a safe distance, the group passed another town that same day, and though it wasn't walled, they could see that its defenses - archers on rooftops, even a catapult in the town square - were securely in place.

Farmers stoically working the fields paused to note their passing, a few even giving a friendly wave or calling to them an offer of a free meal. But the friends pushed on, and as the sun moved low in the sky, they came in sight of yet another town, this one much smaller than the previous, as the land was more sparsely populated the farther they moved from the great river.

They swung around to the east of the settlement and camped with the black silhouettes of the buildings visible in the distance, deciding to keep a watch for the townsfolk that night.

"How far do we have to go?" Juraviel asked as they sat around a low fire, eating their supper.

Elbryan looked to Pony, who had spent years in this area.

"A couple of days," she replied. "No more." She took a stick from the fire and scratched a crude map in the dirt, marking the Masur Delaval and All Saints Bay. "St.-Mere-Abelle is no more than a hundred miles from the river, if I remember correctly," she explained, and then she drew out the land farther to the east, marking Macomber Village and, finally, Pireth Tulme. "I was here, in Pireth Tulme, but after I met up with Avelyn, we went back to the river - not near to St.-Mere-Abelle, but along a course to the south of the abbey."

"Two days," Elbryan mumbled. "Perhaps three. We should begin to formulate our plans."

"There is little to decide," Juraviel said with cavalier flair. "We will walk up to the doors of the abbey and demand our friends be returned. And if they are not, and promptly, we will knock the place down!"

The attempt at humor brought grins, but nothing more, for all of them, Juraviel included, began to recognize how daunting this quest really was. St.-Mere-Abelle was home to hundreds of monks, they knew, many of them proficient in the use of the magical gemstones. If Elbryan, or particularly Pony, was discov-ered and recognized, the quest would be over, and quickly.

"You should not bring the gemstones into the abbey," Elbryan remarked.

Pony looked at him wide-eyed; her use of the stones was among their most potent weapons, and a valuable scouting and infiltrating tool, as well.

"They might detect any use," the ranger explained. "They might be able to sense the presence of the stones even if you are not using them."

"A surprise strike is our only chance," Juraviel agreed.

Pony nodded her agreement, not wanting to get into that debate just yet.

"And if we are discovered," the ranger went on in grim tones, aiming his remark directly at Pony, "you and I must surrender our-selves, loudly and publicly, calling for an exchange."

"The two of us for the release of the Chilichunks and Bradwarden," Pony reasoned.

"And then Juraviel will retrieve Avelyn's stones and go with them to the west, and then with Bradwarden back to Dundalis," Elbryan continued. "Then you take the stones back to Andur'Blough Innin-ness," he explained to the elf, "and bid your Lady Dasslerond to hold them forever safe."

Juraviel was shaking his head before Elbryan finished. "The Touel'alfar will not be involved in the matter of the stones," he said.

"You already are involved!" Pony insisted.

"Not so," said Juraviel. "I am helping friends, repaying debts, and nothing more."

"Then help us in this matter," Pony continued, but Elbryan, with his better understanding of the aloof elves, had already given up the fight.

"You ask for political involvement," Juraviel explained. "That we cannot do."

"I ask for you to uphold the memory of Avelyn," Pony argued.

"This is a matter for the Church to settle," Juraviel was quick to answer. "They, and not the Touel'alfar, must decide their own course."

"This is a matter for the humans to settle," Elbryan agreed, putting his hand on Pony's arm to quiet her. She looked him square in the eye, and he shook his head slowly, deliberately, conveying the hopelessness of such an argument.

"I would ask that you retrieve the stones and give them to Bradwarden," the ranger said to the elf. "Let him take them far away and bury them deep."

Juraviel nodded his agreement.

"And return Greystone to Roger," Pony went on. "And Sym-phony to the forest beyond Dundalis, his home."

Again the elf nodded and a long moment of silence ensued, broken only when Juraviel began to laugh suddenly.

"Ah, but a hopeful group we have become!" the elf said. "We are planning our defeat, not our victory. Is that as you were trained, Nightbird?"

Elbryan's smile widened across his face, shadowed with the stubble of a three-day-old beard. "I was trained to win," he said. "And we will find a way into St.-Mere-Abelle, and be out of the place with Bradwarden and the Chilichunks before the monks can ever know we were there."

They toasted that thought with raised food and drink. Then they finished their meal and went about organizing the camp and its de-fense, Juraviel going out to scout the night, leaving Elbryan and Pony alone.

"I fear this," Pony admitted. "I feel as though it is the end of the long road I began when first I met Avelyn Desbris."

Despite his earlier bravado, Elbryan could not disagree.

Pony moved close to him then, and he put his arms around her. She looked up into his eyes, slid up to her tiptoes and gently kissed him. Then she moved back, locking his stare with her own, the ten-sion building. She came back and kissed him again, more urgently, and he returned the kiss, brushing his lips against her, feeling her strong back under the press of his arms, his hands massaging the muscles.

"What of our pact?" he started to ask, but Pony put her finger across his lips, silencing him, then kissed him again, and again, pulling him down to the ground beside her.

It seemed to Elbryan that they two were alone in the wide world, under the sparkling stars and with the gentle summer breeze blowing across their bodies, licking their exposed skin, tickling them, cooling them.

They were on the road early the next day, running their horses hard, as dawn pinkened the eastern sky before them. Any discus-sions of how they might get into St.-Mere-Abelle secretly fell apart before they really began, for they would have no practical understanding of the place until they had glimpsed it and seen its fortifi-cations and its state of readiness. Were the doors opened wide for refugees from any nearby towns, or were they sealed shut, with dozens of armed guards patrolling the monastery's walls?

They could not know, and so, putting their discussion off until it could produce something tangible, they heightened their pace, de-termined to make the abbey by the next morning.

But then they saw the smoke, rising like demon fingers above a ridge lined with trees. All three had seen such plumes before, and knew it was from no campfire or hearth.

Despite the urgency of their mission, despite the high stakes, no one questioned their course. Elbryan and Pony together turned their mounts to the south, riding hard for the ridge, then up the grassy slope to the tree line. Juraviel, bow in hand, fluttered away from Greystone as soon as they made those trees, the elf climbing high to better scout out the area.

Elbryan and Pony slowed and dismounted, then walked over the lip of the ridge cautiously. Spread below them, along the main road in a bowl-shaped valley, was a caravan of wagons, laden with goods and turned into a defensive, roughly circular formation. Sev-eral wagons were burning, and Elbryan and Pony could hear the shouts from the men below, calling for water, or for preparation of the defenses. The pair could see, too, that many people were down, and the agonized screams of the wounded rolled up out of the bowl.

"Merchants," the ranger remarked.

"We should go down to them," Pony said. "Or at the least, I should, bringing the soul stone."

Elbryan looked at her skeptically, not wanting to use that stone, or any other, so near to St.-Mere-Abelle. "Wait for Juraviel's re-turn," he bade her. "I see no dead monsters about the ring, and so it seems likely that this battle has just begun."

Pony nodded her agreement, though the wails of the wounded pained her greatly.

Juraviel was back soon enough, fluttering to a tree limb just above their heads. "The scene is both good and bad," the elf ex-plained. "First and most importantly, the attackers were goblins, and not powries, a lesser foe by far. But they are four score in number, and preparing a second strike." He pointed across the dell, to the southern ridge. "Beyond the trees."

Elbryan, ever the tactician, and understanding goblins' ways, surveyed the area. "They are confident?" he asked Juraviel.

The elf nodded. "I saw few wounded, and none in argument of further attack."

"Then they will come in right over that ridge," the ranger rea-soned, "using the down slope to speed their run at the merchants. Goblins never concern themselves about their own dead. They'll not expend the time or the effort to coordinate a more comprehen-sive attack."

"Nor will they have to," Juraviel added, looking down at the wagons and the pitiful attempt at defense. "The merchants and their guards cannot hope to hold them off."

"Unless we help them," Pony was quick to put in, and her hand subconsciously slipped to the pouch of gemstones, a motion El-bryan did not miss.

He looked Pony in the eye and shook his head. "Do not use the gems unless we absolutely need them," he instructed.

"Four score," Juraviel remarked.

"But they are only goblins," said the ranger. "If we can kill one of four, the rest will likely flee. Let us prepare the battlefield."

"I will go and watch the goblins," the elf said, and he disap-peared from sight so quickly that both Elbryan and Pony blinked in disbelief.

The two led the horses around the dell, moving down across the road, out of sight of the merchant wagons, then up the southern slope to the tree line. "They are hungry and frightened," Elbryan noted.

"The merchants or the goblins?"

"Likely both," the ranger replied. "But I speak of the goblins. They are hungry and frightened and desperate, and that makes them doubly dangerous."

"So if we kill one in four, they will not run?" Pony asked.

The ranger shrugged. "They are too far from home, with no prospects of getting back. I suspect the rumors are true, that the powries deserted them out here, in a land filled with enemies."

Pony gave him a sidelong glance. "Do you intend to offer mercy?" she asked.

The ranger chuckled at the thought. "Not for goblins," he said firmly. "Not after Dundalis. I pray they do not flee, for then they will live to cause more sadness. Let four score come over the hill, and let four score die at our hands."

They were up to the top of the ridge by then, and the goblins were in sight, huddled on the side of a ridge half a mile to the south.

There weren't many trees between the two positions and the gob-lins, but both Pony and Elbryan quickly discounted any ideas of spotting Juraviel as he made his way down to them. They turned in-stead to the tree line, to see what surprises they could put together for the oncoming horde. Pony moved to the underbrush, looking for young trees suitable for snares, while the ranger focused on one large and dead elm, precariously perched on the very edge of the ridge.

"If we could drop this in their midst, it would cause more than a little confusion," the ranger remarked when Pony moved to join him.

"If we had a team of plow horses, we might indeed," Pony replied sarcastically, for the dead tree was indeed huge.

But Elbryan had an answer to that. He reached into a pouch and took out a packet of red gel. "A gift of the elves," he explained. "And I think this trunk might be rotted enough for it to work."

Pony nodded. She had seen Elbryan use that same gel in Aida, to weaken a metal bar so completely that a single swipe of his sword had cut right through it. "I've already set one snare, and I can see possibilities for several more," she said. "Also, a few sharpened sticks in the underbrush might cause some havoc."

The ranger nodded absently, too immersed in his own work to even notice as Pony went back to hers.

Elbryan found the weakest point along the trunk and tested its width and give. He was convinced that with several mighty swings of Tempest, he could fell the tree, but that would not be good enough, for he would never find the time in the midst of a horde of goblins. But if he could properly prepare it now...

He took up his sword and gave a light chop, then fell back cau-tiously as he heard the responding crackles of buckling wood. Again he found the proper place and cut into the tree, and then again. He went to the packet next and tore it open, then smeared a line of the reddish substance - a mixture the elves used to weaken items - across the critical point, putting it in line with a pair of trees farther down the slope.

As he finished, Pony came back to him, riding Greystone. "We should tell them," she said, motioning toward the merchant caravan.

"They know that someone is up here already," the ranger replied.

"But they should know of our plans to help," Pony reasoned, "that they might properly prepare a complementary defense. We cannot hope to stop all the goblins, no matter how effective our traps and swords." She pointed down the slope to a stump barely visible above the tip of the tall grass. "The descent is steep there, and the lead goblins will be at full speed and in range of any bows the merchants might have," she explained. "That could be a critical point. If I can string a trip rope, we could slow the goblins' progress and allow the merchants many more shots."

"Three hundred feet," Elbryan replied, surveying the distance from the stomp to the nearest cover.

"The merchants likely have that length of rope and more to spare," said Pony. She waited for his nod, then turned Greystone about and moved cautiously down the slope. Two-thirds of the way, less than fifty yards from the caravan and wide open in the grass, she noted the many bows leveled at her, though more and more were dipping low as the archers recognized that she was no goblin.

"My greetings," she said, moving right up to the wagons and ad-dressing a heavy man wearing clothing of the finest fabrics, who seemed, by his posture, to be one of the leaders of the embattled band. "I am no enemy, but an ally."

The man nodded cautiously, offering no response.

"The goblins have not gone far, and are preparing to come back," Pony said, and she turned and pointed back up the slope. "From there," she explained. "My friend and I are preparing a few tricks for them, but we'll not stop them fully, I fear."

"When did this become your fight?" the merchant asked suspiciously.

"We always make battles against goblins our own," she replied without hesitation. "Unless you would prefer that we do not help, and let the four-score goblins swarm over you."

That took away a good measure of the man's bluster. "How can you know they will come from the south?" he asked.

"We know goblins," was Pony's reply. "We know their tactics, or lack thereof. They are gathered in the south, and have not the patience to swing about and coordinate an attack from several dif-ferent directions. Not when they think they have their prey cornered and defeated."

"We'll give 'em a fight!" one archer declared, shaking his bow in the air, a movement followed only halfheartedly by the other ten or so holding bows. All told, the caravan could offer less than forty able- bodied fighters, Pony surmised, and a single score of bows, likely wielded by inexperienced and untrained archers, would hardly dent the goblin onslaught before hand-to-hand combat was joined about the wagons. Elbryan could fight goblins three against one, even four to one, with a reasonable expectation of victory, but to the average man or woman, a single goblin could prove too diffi-cult a foe.

Pony knew that, and so, apparently, did the merchant, for his shoulders sagged. "What do you offer?" he asked.

"Have you any rope?"

The merchant nodded to a man nearby, and he ran to a wagon and pulled aside the tarp, revealing loops and loops of fine cord, thin and strong. Pony motioned for him to bring it. "We will try to even the odds," she explained. "And I will slow their charge there, along the line of that stump, well within range of your bows. Shoot well."

She took the rope from the man, then placed it on the saddle be-hind her and turned Greystone away.

"What is your name, woman?" the merchant asked.

"There will be time for such discussions later," she replied, kicking the horse into a fast canter to the stump.

Up on top of the hill Elbryan was putting the last touches on his array of traps. He made a lasso and tossed it high into the branches of the dead tree, looping it expertly out to the side, then tying it off on the horn of Symphony's saddle. Then he guided the horse to a thick copse far to the side and went about disguising the rope, not wanting to tip off the goblins.

"More company," he heard from above, Juraviel's voice, as he was just finishing.

The ranger looked up, peering intently, finally discerning the lithe form of the elf.

"To the east," Juraviel explained. "A band of monks, a dozen perhaps, approaching cautiously."

"Will they be here in time for the battle?"

Juraviel glanced to the south. "The goblins are already moving," he explained. "Perhaps the monks could get here in time if they hurried, but I saw no sign of that. They cannot have missed the smoke, but I do not know how anxious they are to join in the fray."

Elbryan chuckled, somehow not surprised. "Go and tell Pony," he instructed. "Tell her to keep the stones secure and unused."

"If the situation demands, she will not hold back the magic," Juraviel reasoned. "Nor should she."

"But if she does use them, I suspect we will be fighting a dozen monks soon after the goblins are dispatched," the ranger replied grimly.

The elf worked his way quickly along the edge of the ridge, taking care to stay out of sight of the men at the circled wagons below. He relayed the message to Pony, then rushed back into posi-tion, half flying, half climbing - for his small and fragile wings were getting sorely tired - into a tree even as the front-running goblins approached. With some relief, but not much surprise, Ju-raviel noted their helter-skelter formation, no more than a mob rushing into battle. As the three friends had hoped, the goblins did not pause as they crested the ridge, just rambled over the top and began their charge down the other side, not even taking the time to scout out the defenses of their intended prey.

And hardly noticing the misfortunes of some of their fellows, the elf realized, as a goblin tripped into one of Pony's snares, loosing the bent sapling. The creature shrieked, but it was hardly heard above the battle cries of its companions, and was flipped head over heels and sent spinning into the air, to hang helplessly a few feet from the ground.

Several goblins ran right past their caught companion, paying it no heed, other than to laugh at its misfortune.

To the other side another goblin shrieked in startlement and sudden pain as it plunged into one of the small, nasty trenches Pony had quickly dug and disguised. The creature's leg straightened vio-lently, then bent too far forward, snapping the bone right below the kneecap. The goblin fell back, clutching its throbbing leg and howling, but again its comrades had no time for it

And then a third went down, roaring in agony, its foot punctured by a carefully concealed spike.

Taking confidence in the goblins' inattentiveness, Juraviel took up his small bow and started picking out his shots. One unfortunate goblin stopped right at the base of the elf's tree, leaning on the trunk as it caught its breath. Juraviel's arrow plowed right into the top of its skull, stunning it, then dropping it to its knees, one hand still braced against the tree trunk. It died in that position.

For all the effort, though, only one in twenty of the goblins had been thus slowed, and the leading runners continued to charge down the grassy slope. Juraviel got another shot, hamstringing a goblin as it broke clear of the tree line, and then he looked out to the west, a bit farther down the hill, to the pair of trees where Nightbird prepared the largest surprise of all.

The ranger was down on one knee, behind the shield of trees, bow leveled horizontally between the trunks. He let the lead gob-lins get past the trap, trying to hit the main group. In addition to causing the most damage, this would bring the goblins in at the merchants in an even more scattered manner, a few at a time, he hoped.

A dozen goblins came through the trees at the same time, a dozen more right behind them.

Nightbird let fly, but his shot, true to the mark, was intercepted at the last moment by an unsuspecting goblin, the creature taking it in the side. Undaunted, even anticipating that something like that might happen, Nightbird had the second arrow away immediately, this one slipping through the press to drive hard into the prepared trunk.

At that same moment, the ranger gave a whistle to his trusted horse and Symphony lurched forward, pulling the rope taut.

The dead tree gave a series of tremendous cracking noises in protest, and many goblins froze in place, suddenly afraid.

And then it came sweeping down amongst them, tons of wood, dozens of long and wide sharp-ended branches.

Goblins dove left and right, screamed and scrambled, but the ranger's timing had been perfect. Three were killed outright, and many more, a dozen and four, were seriously gashed by splintering pieces, or slammed hard to the ground, or trapped under grabbing branches. About a quarter of the goblins had already gone beyond the area of the trap, and they kept up their run for the wagons. Of those caught in or behind the fallen tree, most simply scrambled on over the newest obstacle, too hungry for human blood to even con-sider the possibility that this might be an ambush, while others, confused and wary, milled about or searched for cover. That confu-sion, that breaking of any cohesive ranks, was exactly the outcome Nightbird had hoped for.

Not about to miss the opportunity, the ranger took up Hawkwing again, driving an arrow into a goblin that had wandered a bit too close, and then firing again, taking out a goblin as it tried to extract itself from the prickly branches.

Up the hill, Symphony tugged and pulled, breaking free the piece of the tree that was bound by the rope. One goblin moved near the heavy brush that concealed the great stallion, inspecting the commotion, but Nightbird promptly shot it down.

Symphony broke free of the copse, several goblins spotting him and giving a howl. Down the hill Symphony pounded, rushing to the ranger.

Nightbird, Tempest in hand, ran out to meet the horse, reaching around and cutting the rope with a single swipe of the magical blade. He pulled himself into the saddle, laying Tempest across his lap and readying Hawkwing yet again, fitting an arrow as he settled into his seat.

And how those closest goblins scrambled when they saw that bow come up their way!

Nightbird blew one down, and with a roar of defiance, he kicked Symphony into a short burst that brought them right into the open, the ranger letting fly another arrow - and scoring another hit - as they went.

The closest goblins skidded to an abrupt halt, some of them hurling spears, but Nightbird was too quick for that, spinning Hawkwing in his hands, then swiping it about like a club, parrying the missiles harmlessly aside.

Up came the bow in a quick circuit, left hand gripping it solidly in the middle as the right fitted yet another arrow. A split second later another goblin went squirming into the dirt.

On the ranger charged. He got one more shot, then set Hawkwing across the saddle horn and took up Tempest, bearing down on a group of three. He turned Symphony hard to the side at the very last second and leaped from the saddle, landing in a roll, coming up in a short run and using the sheer momentum of his charge to drive his slashing sword right through a goblin's blocking club, and halfway through the creature's head, as well.

A snap of his wrist sent the goblin flying away, sent Tempest in a sudden spin back over Nightbird's hand. As the blade came around, he stabbed straight ahead, scoring his second kill, and he tore Tempest free and brought it about in time to block the downward-slicing sword of the third.

One against one, the goblin was no match for Nightbird. The ranger parried another blow, then a third, and this time he hit the goblin's sword so hard that it went up high. Nightbird stepped forward, inside the opening, and, still using Tempest to brace the goblin's sword above its head, he clamped his free hand about the creature's skinny neck.

The ranger drove on, bending the goblin over backward, the tremendous muscles in his arm bulging and cording. With a grunt and a sudden, vicious burst, Nightbird snapped the creature's neck, and dropped it dead to the ground.

More goblins were coming in about him; the ranger wel-comed them.

The lead group of goblins heard the fighting but never bothered to look back, too intent on the apparently easy prey of the merchant caravan. Down the slope they ran, full speed, hooting wildly, hun-grily. Arrows came out at them - one even went down - but that hardly slowed the fierce charge.

But then, suddenly, those in the lead were sprawling, flying headlong to the ground. More and more tumbled, the whole group becoming entangled and bogged down.

Off to the side, in the brush, Pony urged Greystone ahead, keep-ing the rope taut as goblin after goblin tripped across it. She had tied one end securely to the stump, then had strewn it across the grass to these trees, carefully noting the angle so that when the horse pulled, the rope would come up at the right height, just under a goblin's knee. Before she tied off the other end to her mount, she had looped it under an exposed root to prevent the jerking of the tripping goblins from affecting Greystone directly. Now the pow-erful stallion, straining forward, kept the rope taut.

From below, the two-score archers at the caravan had more time to pick their shots, at relatively stationary targets, and their next barrage was far more effective. Even worse for the goblins, those that got back up had lost their momentum, had to begin their rush anew from a standstill barely forty yards from the bowmen.

The merchants and their guards, though not true warriors, were not fools, and several were not firing arrows, but were holding their shots for whatever goblin ventured too near. The monsters came at the wagons in random order, one or two at a time, and without the panic-inspiring confusion of a rushing mob. Thus the archers were able to focus clearly and most of their shots rang true.

Pony knew that her job here was done. She reached back with her sword and cut Greystone free, then turned the horse about, thinking at first to charge out into the midst of those goblins still pulling themselves up from the grass. But then she looked back up the hill and saw her love in the midst of yet another group. Re-sisting the urge to take out her magical gems, she drove her heels hard into Greystone's flanks and the horse leaped away, thundering up the hill.

With the bulk of the goblin horde moving beyond the ridge, leaving the few dead and wounded behind, Juraviel could more freely pick his shots. At first he concentrated on those creatures bat-tling the ranger, but as the extent of the disaster began to sink in to the goblins, several turned about and tried to flee, running back up over the hill, passing right below the elf'sposition with no inten-tion of stopping, or even slowing.

Juraviel's bow hummed continuously, arrow after arrow sting-ing the frightened and fleeing monsters. He shot every goblin he could see, and had nearly emptied his quiver when one creature skidded to a stop at the base of his tree, hopping excitedly and pointing up at him.

Juraviel promptly drove an arrow into its ugly face, dropping it right beside its dead and kneeling companion. Then the elf shot two more of the creatures, who had come to see what the goblin was yelling about.

Juraviel reached back methodically for his quiver, to find that he had only one arrow remaining. With a shrug, he shot yet another, then hooked the bow over a jut in the limb, drew out his slender sword and moved lower in the tree, looking for the proper moment to strike hard.

He realized, though, that this fight was already nearing its end, for more than a score of goblins lay dead on the hill, another score were fast dying down by the merchant caravan, several had gone back over the ridge, and another substantial group were running full out down the slope, but angling to the east. The sight brought great hope to Juraviel, for these were the goblins of old, the cow-ardly, easily confused enemy that could not hold formation in the face of unexpected resistance. These were the goblins that, though much more numerous than the humans and elves of Corona, had never posed any organized threat of domination.

The goblins' eagerness to get at the exposed warrior waned fast as one after another fell dead at the end of Nightbird's glowing sword.

Fully surrounded by five, the ranger came ahead powerfully, then, seeing those before him falling back and knowing that those behind would be pressing forward, he quickly reversed his direc-tion, spinning about with a powerful slash of his sword, knocking aside a swinging club and a stabbing spear. With the perfect bal-ance of years ofbi'nelle dasada, the ranger's feet shuffled fast, be-fore those goblins now behind him could come in at his back, and with these two taken by surprise with his sudden shift, he scored a solid stab in the club-wielder's chest.

As that creature fell away, clutching its wound in a futile attempt to hold in its spouting lifeblood, its companion retracted its spear and let fly.

The throw was true, right for the ranger's head, but a subtle twist and duck, and Tempest flashing up diagonally, deflected it harmlessly over his shoulder - harmless for Nightbird, that is, for the missile's continuing flight caused those goblins behind the ranger to dodge aside frantically, slowing their progress, giving the ranger more time to press his newest attack.

The now unarmed goblin threw up its arms in a feeble defense. Tempest flashed three times repeatedly, the first slashing one arm aside, the second stabbing the other shoulder, dropping that de-fense, and the third going straight for the throat.

Nightbird spun about in time to defeat the charge of the re-maining three, and was back in a low and balanced defensive crouch as two more replaced their fallen comrades, again surrounding the ranger, but this time seeming less eager to make the first attack.

Nightbird continued to turn about, ready to defend from every angle. Every so often he let Tempest out in a measured thrust, not to score a hit, but to entice those goblins behind the strike to come in. He thought to play on their mistakes, to let them lead and, inevi-tably, err, but then he came to a different understanding, a confident smile, so unsettling to the goblins, widening on his face.

They understood his contentment a moment later when Greystone thundered into their midst, plowing them aside, Pony's slashing sword chopping one and then another to the ground. At first the woman moved to rush right beside her love, even freeing up her hand so she could reach down and help him onto the horse behind her.

But the ranger was motioning for her to come down and join in the fun.

Pony threw her leg over the saddle, quickly reversing her feet so her closest foot was in the lone stirrup. She waited for two more goblins to dive aside in the face of Greystone's mighty charge, then she leaped free, slapping the horse to continue its run, and hitting the ground in a fierce charge.

One goblin stood between her and Nightbird, its sword out straight.

Pony's rush was too fast. She went down low and came up hard, her sword lifting the goblin's blade up high, sending it, along with a couple of goblin fingers, flying away. She continued her run, right beside the creature, turning the angle of her blade so it drove right through the goblin's chest as she passed.

The goblin squealed and got yanked about, Pony tearing the sword free, leading her charge with her bloody blade slashing wildly.

Nightbird had not been idle, moving with a ferocity that stunned his enemies, opening the way and positioning himself so Pony could get in to join him. In the span of a few seconds the lovers were standing back-to- back.

"I thought you would stay low on the hill to check on the mer-chants," Nightbird said, seeming not too pleased that Pony was with him in this dangerous situation.

"And I thought it was past time that I tried out this sword-dance you have been teaching me," she casually replied.

"Do you have the stones ready?"

"We will not need them."

The determination in her voice bolstered the ranger, even brought a smile to his face.

The goblins circled, trying to get a measure of these two. Their many dead companions lying about them vividly reminded them of the consequences of any foolhardy attacks. Still, they outnum-bered Pony and Nightbird by more than five to one.

One creature hooted and rushed ahead, launching a spear at Pony. Up flashed her sword, at the last moment, deflecting the weapon high, over her shoulder, and taking most of its momentum. Pony hadn't cried out at all, but she didn't have to, for Nightbird, feeling her muscles against his back, recognized the movement as clearly as if he had made it. He half turned as the spear rebounded over Pony's shoulder, and a quick snap of his hand snared it. In the same fluid movement, the ranger brought the goblin spear past him and heaved it hard right into the chest of another goblin that had ventured too close.

"How did you do that?" Pony asked, though she had never even glanced back to see the movement.

Nightbird only shook his head, and Pony sensed it and went quiet, as well, the two of them settling more comfortably into their defensive stance. They felt an amazing symbiosis growing be-tween them, as though they were communicating through their very muscles as clearly as if using open speech. Pony anticipated every twitch, every bend, of Nightbird's stance.

The ranger felt it, too, and was surely amazed by the intimacy. Despite his logical fears, Elbryan knew enough to trust in this strange extension ofbi'nelle dasada. He did pause and wonder if the elves even knew that the sword-dance could be taken to this ex-treme. But his musing lasted only an instant, for the goblins were getting edgy, some skittering closer, another readying a spear as if to throw it - though the goblins across the way, having witnessed the first disastrous attempt, weren't pleased by that prospect.

Pony understood that Nightbird wanted her to go out to the left. A quick glance that way told her the reason: a particularly bold goblin needed to learn a swift and painful lesson. She look a deep breath, eliminating all doubts from her thoughts, for she knew that doubt would bring hesitation, and hesitation would bring disaster. This was the real meaning of their morning ritual, she realized, a dance as intimate as lovemaking, and now was the real test of their trust. Her love wanted her to go out to the left.

Nightbird felt the tension in her back, then the sudden lunge, and as she moved, he moved, rolling around, off her back foot, a complete pivot that took the two goblins rushing in at the apparent opening completely by surprise. The closest goblin was prodding out at Pony with its spear when Tempest slashed down, taking both its arms at the elbows.

The second goblin at least managed to get its club in the way, though the ranger merely slapped the blocking weapon aside and stabbed the creature hard in the belly.

Now Pony was moving, rolling over Nightbird's trailing foot, as he had gone over hers. And again, those goblins coming in at the apparent opening Nightbird's movement had caused were caught by surprise, and by Pony's slashing sword. One fell to the ground, grasping at its torn throat, while two others leaped into a short and hasty retreat.

And Pony and Nightbird were back-to-back again, crouched, in perfect defense and perfect harmony.




From the tree line, Belli'mar Juraviel watched in satisfaction as Symphony ushered the riderless Greystone to safety. Many times the elf had witnessed the intelligence of Symphony, but every time, as now, he was thrilled and awed by the display.

Even more awesome was the spectacle that Juraviel witnessed when he glanced back down to his human companions and saw the harmony of their movements, Pony and Nightbird complementing each other with absolute perfection. To the Touel'alfar,bi'nelle dasada was a personal dance, a private meditation of a warrior, but now, watching this, Juraviel soon understood why Nightbird had taught it to Pony, and why they danced together.

Indeed, at that moment on the grassy slope - a slope fast turning red with spilled goblin blood - Pony and Nightbird were as one, a single warrior.

Juraviel realized that his bow should not be idle, that he should be helping out his friends. They hardly seemed to need it, though, playing off each other's movements so fluidly that the goblin circle was widening, not closing, and was thinning, the creatures giving more and more ground.

Juraviel did finally blink away his awe long enough to retrieve a single arrow, and his shot took a goblin in the back of the neck, just under the skull.

The line around Nightbird and Pony thinned considerably, with more goblins turning and running away than falling to the pair's harmonious dance. Pony scored a kill, and the ranger cut down a goblin stupidly going for her back again as she turned, but then it all seemed to come to a standstill, with no monsters venturing near enough for any attacks.

Nightbird sensed the mounting fear and tension, saw the goblins looking as much behind them now as ahead. They wanted to break and run off, every one, and the battle was about to enter its most critical stage. He started to explain as much to Pony, but she cut him short before he had hardly begun, saying simply, "I know."

And she did know, Nightbird recognized, from the subtle move-ments of her muscles as she dug herself in, finding balance and po-sitioning her legs for a fast shift.

The spears came in at them in no coordinated fashion; the first goblin let fly, turned and fled, and a shower of missiles followed, the creatures using the barrage to cover their flight.

Nightbird and Pony spun and dove, came up with swords slash-ing, deflecting and dodging. There was no pause on the part of the ranger or his companion as they came through the volley un-scathed, each rushing out at the closest goblins, cutting them down and running on to the next in line. No longer did the two work in concert, but neither did any of the goblins, so every fight became an individual contest. Pony worked her sword marvelously, weaving circles about her opponent until she found an opening, and then striking true, a measured thrust, her second or third hit usually fin-ishing the task.

Nightbird, stronger and more skilled, was less finesse and more sheer power. As goblins raised their weapons to block, he merely smashed through the defense, and usually through the goblin in the same deadly strike. He darted back and forth, rushed ahead and turned completely about, whatever was needed to bring him to his next kill. The goblins should have calmed and organized a coordi-nated resistance, but they were stupid creatures, and frightened.

They died quickly.

Those few who managed to get up the hill to the tree line ahead of the ranger found yet another foe, a lithe little creature, hardly as tall as a goblin, wielding a sword so slender that it seemed more fitted to a dinner table than a battleground.

The leading goblin swerved to meet this newest foe, thinking it to be a human child, thinking to score a quick kill.

Juraviel's sword smacked against the tip of the goblin's blade, once, and then three more times, so rapidly that the creature had no time to react. And each time, the elf inched ahead, so that when the fourth parry rang out, Juraviel was only a foot from the surprised goblin.

The elf's sword flashed again in rapid succession, once, twice, thrice, driving three holes into the goblin's chest.

Out charged Juraviel, meeting the next, this one unarmed, having thrown its spear at the ranger. The goblin held up its hands.

Belli'mar Juraviel of the Touel'alfar had no mercy for goblins.

The rout on the slope ended at about the same time as the rout at the wagons. The lead group of goblins, the ones Pony had tripped up, fell dead to the last without ever getting into the ring.

There remained one more substantial group, though, running down the road to the east, out of the dale.

Pony spotted Juraviel first, sitting calmly on a low branch up the hill, wiping the blood off his sword with a rag of goblin clothing.

"I counted four who passed beyond me," he called down to his friends. "Taking full flight down the back side of the ridge."

Nightbird whistled, but Symphony was moving to him before he made a sound.

"Are none to get away to carry on the legend of the Nightbird?" Pony teased him as he reached for the saddle. In the northland war, Nightbird had often let one or two monsters run away, to whisper his name in fear.

"These goblins will only cause more mischief," the ranger ex-plained, swinging himself up. "There are too many innocents around whom they might harm."

Pony looked at him quizzically, then to Greystone, wondering if she should join him.

"Keep watch on the merchants," the ranger explained. "They will likely need your talents at healing."

"If I see one close to death, I will use the soul stone," Pony explained.

The ranger conceded the point.

"And what of them?" Pony asked, pointing to the band fleeing to the east. There had to be at least a score of the creatures, maybe thirty or more.

The ranger considered their course and gave a chuckle. "It would seem that the monks may yet be involved," he said. "If not, we will hunt that band down when we are finished here. Our road is east anyway."

He was off before Pony even nodded her assent, thundering Symphony up the ridge and down the back side, preparing Hawkwing as he went. He spotted the first of the goblins running through the grass and closed the distance quickly, meaning to go right past the creature and use his sword. Then he caught sight of the second, running in a completely different direction; the group had scattered.

No time for Tempest, the ranger decided, and up came his bow.

Only three remained.

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