The Demon Spirit

CHAPTER 4 At the Gates of Paradise

Graceful and strong, Nightbird slipped down from Symphony's side while the horse was in mid-gallop. The ranger hit the ground running, stringing Hawkwing as he went, while Pony, who had been sitting behind him on the horse, hopped forward, took up the reins and kept Symphony's run true and in control, for the muddy ground was treacherous. She expertly veered the horse to the left, around the base of a wide mound, while Elbryan went right.

Before Pony and Symphony were halfway around, they spotted the trio of goblins they had been chasing. Two were far ahead, run-ning wildly for the cover of a copse of trees, but the third had doubled back and was going around the mound the other way. "Coming fast!" Pony yelled and bent low on Symphony, angling the horse more sharply about the hillock.

Symphony broke stride as the goblin came staggering back out from behind the mound, clutching at the arrow lodged in its throat A second arrow hit it in the chest, dropping it to the mud.

"They made for the trees," Pony said to the ranger as he came running into sight. "They will lay up in there," she reasoned.

The ranger slowed and glanced at the copse, then, apparently agreeing, he went to the dead goblin and began extracting his ar-rows. That done, he stood again and scanned the landscape, a cu-rious expression crossing his handsome face.

"We can do a circuit of the copse," Pony reasoned. "Find the best way to get in and strike at them."

Nightbird seemed not to be listening.


Still the ranger kept looking around, his mouth open now, his face full of wonderment.

"Elbryan?" the woman said again, more insistent.

"I know this place," he replied absently, his gaze darting from spot to spot.

"The Moorlands?" Pony asked incredulously, her face scrunch-ing with disgust as she looked around at the desolate region. "How could you?"

"I passed this very way on my road back to Dundalis," he ex-plained. "When I left the elves." He ran to a nearby birch tangle, bending low as if he expected his long-ago campsite to still be under there. "Yes," he said excitedly. "I slept here in this very place one quiet night. The gnats were horrific," he added with a chuckle.

"The goblins?" Pony asked, nodding in the direction of the dis-tant copse.

"I did find some goblins in here, but farther to the east, on the edges of the Moorlands," Elbryan replied.

"I meanthose goblins," Pony said firmly, pointing ahead.

Elbryan waved his hand dismissively. The goblins were not im-portant to him at the moment, not with that long-ago-traveled road coming clearer and clearer in his mind. He scrambled to the side, past Pony and Symphony, and looked over the splotchy brush and the rolling clay to the black silhouette of mountaintops just visible far in the west, their outlines silver under the light of the de-scending sun.

"Forget the goblins," Elbryan said suddenly, grabbing Sym-phony's bridle and leading horse and rider away, on a course that would bring them well to the side of the copse of trees and more di-rectly in line with the distant mountains.

"Forget them?" Pony echoed. "We chased that tribe twenty miles, into the Moorlands and more than halfway through. I've got a thousand gnat bites swelling on every part of my body, and the smell of this place will follow us for a year to come! And you want me to just forget them?"

"They are unimportant," Elbryan said without looking at her. "The last two out of thirty. With their score-and-eight companions slain, I doubt they'll head back toward End-o'-the-World for some time to come."

"Do not underestimate goblin mischief," Pony replied.

"Forget them," Elbryan said again.

Pony lowered her head and growled softly. She could hardly believe that Elbryan was leading her farther west, away from the Timberlands, even if he meant to dismiss the goblin pair. But she trusted him, and if her guess was right, they were closer to the western edge of the Moorlands than the eastern. The sooner they got out of this wretched, bug-ridden place, the better she would like it.

They went on for a short while, until the sun began to set over the distant mountains, then Elbryan went about the task of setting up camp. They were still in the Moorlands, still haunted by the buzzing insects, and, even more to Pony's dislike, they were still too close to the copse of trees wherein the goblins had disappeared. She repeatedly tried to point this out to her companion, but he would hear none of it. "I must go to Oracle," he announced.

Pony followed his gaze to the base of a large tree, one root pulled up out of the soft ground to create a small hollow underneath. "A fine place to be sitting when the goblins come charging in," the woman replied sourly.

"There were only two."

"You doubt that they'll find friends in this wretched place?" Pony asked. "We could set our camp with thoughts of a quiet night, only to find that we are fighting half the entire goblin army before the dawn."

Elbryan seemed to have run out of answers. He chewed his bottom lip for a bit, looking to the nearby tree, its hollowed base inviting him to Oracle. He had to go to Uncle Mather, he felt and soon, before the images of that long-lost trail faded from his thoughts.

"Go and do what you must," Pony said to him, recognizing the true dilemma etched on his face. "But give me the cat's-eye. Sym-phony and I will scout about for any signs of enemies."

Elbryan was genuinely relieved as he took the circlet from his head and handed it to the woman. It was a gift from Avelyn Desbris that he and Pony had been passing back and forth as needed. He couldn't use it in Oracle anyway; it would defeat the whole mood of the meditation, for the gemstone set in the front of the circlet, a chrysoberyl, more commonly known as cat's-eye, would allow the wearer of the circlet to see clearly in the darkest of nights, even in the darkest of caves.

"You owe me for my indulgence," Pony informed him as she placed the circlet about her thick mop of blond hair. Her tone, and the sudden grin that lifted the edges of her mouth, told the ranger what she might have in mind, a notion reinforced when she hopped over to him a moment later and kissed him passionately.

"Later," she said.

"When we are not surrounded by goblins and insects," Elbryan agreed.

Pony swung up onto Symphony's saddle. With a wink at Elbryan, she turned the horse about and trotted away into the growing gloom - but with the cat's-eye securely in place, the images before her remained distinct.

Elbryan watched her go with the deepest affection and respect. This was a trying time for the young ranger, a time when all his skills, physical and mental, were being put to the absolute test every day. Every decision could prove tragic; every move he made could give his enemies the advantage. How glad he was to have Pony, so thoughtful, so skilled, so beautiful, at his side.

He sighed when she passed out of sight, then turned to the busi-ness at hand: the construction of a proper sight for Oracle and a meeting with Uncle Mather.

It didn't take Pony long to discern that the goblins had not given up the chase, and had in fact begun trailing her and Elbryan. And the tracks she found when she circled back indicated that the goblin pair had indeed found some friends, more goblins, per-haps as many as a dozen. Pony looked ahead, back toward her camp, which was now no more than a mile away. She would be hard-pressed to ride by the goblins and get to Elbryan in time, she realized.

"Oracle," she said, shaking her head and giving a great sigh. She bade Symphony to stay put, then reached into her pouch for her malachite. She slipped her feet out of the stirrups as she put her thoughts into the gem, summoning its power. Then she began to rise, slowly, into the nighttime sky, hoping the darkness was com-plete enough to keep her hidden from sharp goblin eyes.

She had only gone up about twenty feet when she spotted the creatures, gathered about a small, well-concealed fire in another copse of trees, barely a couple hundred yards from her position. They hadn't settled for the night, she knew, but were up and agi-tated, sketching in the dirt -??probably approach routes or searching routes - pushing each other and arguing.

Pony didn't want to expend too much of her magical energy, so she gradually released the malachite's levitational powers, drifting back down to land atop Symphony. "Are you ready to have some fun?" she asked the horse, replacing the malachite in her pouch and taking out two different stones.

Symphony nickered softly and Pony patted his neck. She had never tried this particular trick before, and especially not while taking a horse in with her, but she was brimming with confidence. Avelyn had taught her well, and, given her newfound insights into the gemstones - an understanding that went beyond anything she had ever known - she believed with all her heart that she was ready.

She started Symphony walking in the direction of the goblin camp, then took up a serpentine and began gathering its magic. In her other hand she held both bridle and a ruby, perhaps the most powerful stone in her possession.

With the cat's-eye, Pony picked her path carefully, a trail that would take her and Symphony in fast and hard. Barely twenty yards away, Symphony's hoofbeats covered by the sounds of ar-guing goblins, the woman communicated her intentions to the horse via the turquoise, then kicked the powerful stallion into a dead gallop and let her own thoughts fall into the serpentine, bringing up a glowing white shield about her and the horse, making it look as though she and Symphony had fallen into a vat of a sticky, milky substance.

Pony only had seconds to secure the shield about them both, to switch hands on the bridle and bring the ruby up high, dropping the serpentine shield about the ruby, then completing the protective bubble about her hand under the gemstone.

Goblins howled and reached for their weapons, diving and rolling as horse and rider thundered into their midst. One ugly brute had a spear up and ready to throw.

Pony paid it no heed, could see nothing but the red swirls within the ruby, could hear nothing but the wind in her ears and the sim-mering, mounting power of the gemstone.

Symphony ran straight and true, right to the goblins' fire, then skidded to an abrupt halt and reared.

Goblins shouted; some charged, some continued to scramble away.

Not far enough away.

Pony loosed the destructive power of the ruby, a tremendous, concussive fireball that exploded out from her hand, engulfing goblin and tree alike in a sudden blazing inferno.

Symphony reared again and whinnied, pulling wildly. Pony held on and called comforting words to the horse, though she doubted that Symphony could even hear her through the tremen-dous roar of the blaze, or even sense her calming thoughts with the sheer commotion of the conflagration. Pony could hardly see, smoke rolling all about, but she urged Symphony forward, and so solid was her serpentine shield that neither she nor the great horse felt any heat whatsoever. They passed by one fallen goblin, the one who had raised its spear to throw, and Pony looked on in disgust as the blackened creature, still holding fast the charring spear, settled, its super-heated chest collapsing with a crackle.

Soon after, horse and rider came out of the copse, into the cooler night, and moved away, an exhausted and coughing Pony dropping the protective shield. "Oracle," she said again and sighed again, glancing back at the blaze.

No goblins would emerge from that catastrophe, she knew.

When she got back to her camp, she found Elbryan standing on the edge, staring at the continuing fire nearly a mile away.

"Your doing," he stated more than asked.

"Somebody had to see to the goblins," Pony replied, slipping down from the still-agitated black horse. "And it should interest you to know that their numbers had swelled."

Elbryan gave her a disarming grin. "I had confidence that you could handle whatever situation arose," he said.

"While you played at Oracle?"

The smile left the ranger's face and he shook his head slowly.

"No play," he said gravely. "A search that might save all the world."

"You are being very mysterious this night," Pony remarked.

"If you took a moment from your insults and considered the tales I told you about my time away from Dundalis, you would begin to understand."

Pony cocked her head and regarded the man, the ranger, the elven-trained ranger.

"Juraviel?" she asked suddenly, breathlessly, referring to an elf she had once known, friend and mentor to Elbryan.

"And his kin," Elbryan said, nodding his chin toward the west. "I believe that I have remembered the road back to Andur'Blough Inninness."

Andur'Blough Inninness, Pony echoed in her mind. The "Forest of Cloud" wherein lay Caer'alfar, home to the Touel'alfar, the slight, winged elves of Corona. Elbryan had told her many tales of the enchanted place, but always answered her pleas to go there with a frustrated reply that he could not recall the trail, that the elves desired their privacy even from him, the one they named Nightbird, a ranger trained in their home. If he was right now, if he could indeed find the trail back to the elven home, then his words about the unimportance of a couple of goblins suddenly rang with more conviction.

"We shall set off in the morning," Elbryan promised into her eager expression. "Before the dawn."

"Symphony will be packed and waiting," Pony replied, her blue eyes twinkling with excitement.

Elbryan took her hand and led her to the small tent they shared. "Have you any enchantments which will repel insects?" he asked on a whim.

Pony considered the thought for a moment. "A fireball would give us a short reprieve," she replied.

Elbryan glanced back to the east, to the still-burning, thoroughly decimated copse, then scrunched up his face and shook his head. He'd suffer the inconvenience of a few thousand gnats.

No goblins bothered them the rest of that night, nor the next day as they exited the Moorlands through the western border. Both rode atop Symphony as soon as the ground became more firm, and Elbryan pushed the horse at a swift pace. Joined tele-pathically through the turquoise, the ranger understood that Sym-phony wanted to run hard, had been born to run hard. And so they made their swift way, setting camps for only short hours in the darkest part of the night, and, on Elbryan's insistence, avoiding any goblins or giants or powries, or any other distraction. His purpose was singular now, while the ever-elusive trail to An-dur'Blough Inninness remained clear in his thoughts, and Pony didn't argue with the wisdom of trying to enlist the elves in their continuing struggle.

And there was an added benefit for the woman. With all the en-chanting tales Elbryan had told of his days training as a ranger, she dearly wanted to see the elven forest.

She used the reprieve from battle for another purpose, as well. "Are you ready to begin your new career?" she asked one bright morning, Elbryan breaking down the camp and grumbling that they had overslept and should have been on the trail before the dawn.

The ranger cocked his head curiously.

Pony held aloft the pouch of gemstones, and gave them a defini-tive shake when Elbryan's expression soured. "You have seen their power," she protested.

"I am a warrior, and no wizard," Elbryan replied. "And certainly no monk!"

"And I am not a warrior?" Pony asked slyly. "How many times have I put you down to the ground?"

Elbryan couldn't suppress a chuckle at that. When they were younger, children in Dundalis before the goblins came, he and Pony had wrestled several times, with Pony always emerging the victor. And once, after being caught by the hair by Elbryan, the girl had even laid the boy out cold with a punch to the face. The memories, even of the knockout, were the brightest of all for Elbryan, for then had come the dark time, the first goblin invasion, and he and Pony had been separated for so many years, each thinking the other dead.

Now he was Nightbird, among the finest warriors in all the world, and she was a wielder of magic, a wizard trained in the use of the sacred gemstones by Avelyn Desbris, who had been perhaps the most powerful magic-wielder in all the world.

"You must learn them," Pony insisted. "At least a bit."

"You seem to do well with them on your own," Elbryan replied defiantly, though he was privately a bit intrigued by the prospects of using the powerful gemstones. "Would we not be weakened as a fighting team if some of the stones were in my possession?"

"That would depend on the situation," Pony answered. "If you get wounded, I can use the soul stone to mend your injuries, but what if I get wounded? Who will heal me? Or would you just leave me sitting against a tree to die?"

The image conjured by that thought nearly buckled Elbryan's knees. He couldn't believe that neither he nor Pony had thought of that possibility before - at least not enough to do anything about it. All objections gone, he said, "We must be on the trail." He held his hand up as Pony began her expected protest. "But with every meal and every break, I will be tutored, particularly with the soul stone," he explained. "All our waking hours will be filled, then, with trav-eling and learning."

Pony considered that for just a moment, and nodded her agree-ment with the concession. Then, with a sudden wistful smile, she took a step closer to Elbryan, hooked her finger in the top of his tunic and pursed her sensual lips. "Every waking moment?" she asked coyly.

Elbryan couldn't find the breath to reply. That was what he most loved about this woman: her ability to keep him always off-balance, to surprise him and entice him with the simplest statements, with movements subtly suggestive. Every time he thought he was planted firmly in the ground, Pony found a way to make him realize that the ground was as tentative as the shifting silt of the Moorlands.

They were late for the trail, the ranger knew, and he knew, too, that they wouldn't be going anywhere for a little while.

What struck them most was the pure majesty of the mountains -??there was simply no other word for it. They walked along rocky trails, with Elbryan in the lead, checking the trail and watching for tracks. Pony, walking behind, held Symphony by the bridle, though with its telepathic connection to both these humans, the horse would have followed anyway. Neither Elbryan nor Pony spoke, for the sound of voices seemed out of place here, unless those voices were raised in glorious song.

All about them great mountains reached up their white caps of snow to touch the sky. Clouds drifted by, sometimes above them, sometimes below them, and often they walked right through the gray air. The wind blew constantly, but it only dulled the sound even more, making this majestic place utterly silent, utterly serene. So they walked and they looked, and were humbled by the sheer power and glory of nature.

Elbryan knew he was on the right trail, knew he was closing in on his intended destination. This place, so powerful, so over-whelming,felt like Andur'Blough Inninness.

The trail forked, going up and to the left, down and to the right, around an outcropping of stone. Elbryan started left and motioned for Pony to move on to the right, figuring the paths would cross again soon enough. He was still climbing, and still veering left, when he heard Pony cry out. Down he sprinted, cutting over the rough ground between the paths, leaping atop any boulders in his path and springing away, as surefooted as any mountain cat. How often Nightbird had run along such terrain during his years of training with the Touel'alfar!

He slowed his pace when he spotted Pony standing calmly with Symphony by her side. When he got up beside her and followed her gaze over the lip of a steep descent, he understood.

There was a valley below them, obviously, but it was hidden from view by a wall of thick fog, an unbroken blanket of gray.

"It cannot be natural," Pony reasoned. "No cloud as I have ever seen."

"Andur'Blough Inninness," Elbryan replied breathlessly, and when he finished his statement, the corners of his mouth rose in a wide smile.

"The Forest of Cloud," Pony added, the common translation of the elven words.

"There is a cloud above it all the day, every day - " Elbryan started to explain.

"Not a cheery place," the woman interrupted.

Elbryan gave her a sidelong glance. "But it is," he replied. "When you want it to be."

Now it was Pony's turn to regard her companion curiously.

"I cannot even begin to explain it," Elbryan stammered. "It seems so gray from up here, but it's not like that underneath, not at all. The blanket is illusionary, and yet it is not."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

Elbryan gave a great sigh and searched for a different approach. "It is gray down there, and melancholy, beautifully so," he said. "But only if you want it to be. For those who prefer a day in the sun, there is plenty to be found."

"The gray blanket looks solid," Pony remarked doubtfully.

"Appearances are often far from the truth where the Touel'alfar are concerned."

Pony couldn't miss the reverence with which Elbryan spoke of the elves, and having met a couple of them, she could understand his respect - though she wasn't so enamored of them, and in truth found them to be a bit arrogant and callous. Still, looking at El-bryan now, she noticed that he was beaming, as obviously de-lighted and charmed as she had ever seen him.

And the source of that charm, she knew, was right below them. She stopped her arguing then, taking the ranger at his word.

"It was not until this very moment that I realized how much I miss my days in Caer'alfar," Elbryan said quietly. "Or how much I miss Belli'mar Juraviel, and even Tuntun, who made my life quite difficult in those years."

Pony nodded grimly at the mention of Tuntun, the gallant elf maiden who had given her life in Aida saving Elbryan and her from one of the demon dactyl's monstrous creations, the spirit of a man encased in magma.

Elbryan chuckled, stealing the somber mood.

"What is it?" Pony prompted.

"The milk stones," the ranger replied.

Pony looked at him curiously; he had told her quite a bit about his days with the elves, but had only mentioned the milk stones in passing. Day after day, week after week, month after month, young Elbryan had spent his mornings with the stones. They were sponge-like, though harder and more solid. Each day they would be placed in a bog, where they would soak up the liquid. It was Elbryan's job to fish them out and carry them to a trough, where he would squeeze the now-flavored water out of them, a concoction that the elves used to create a sweet and potent wine.

"The warmth of my meal would depend on how fast I could get those stones milked," Elbryan went on. "I would gather a basket and run to the trough, then return again and again until I had col-lected my quota. Meanwhile, the elves would set out my meal, piping hot."

"But you were not fast enough and had to eat it cold," Pony teased.

"At first," Elbryan admitted in all seriousness. "But soon enough I could complete my task fast enough to burn my tongue."

"And so you ate many a hot meal."

Elbryan shook his head and smiled wistfully. "No," he replied. "For Tuntun was always there, setting traps, slowing me down. Sometimes I was the trickier, and got the meal hot. Many times I wound up sitting in the brush, my feet entangled by invisible elven cords, and often right in view of the meal, watching the steam go off the soup." Elbryan could talk about it wistfully now, could re-member with the wisdom of hindsight, with the knowledge of the great value of the often brutal lessons that the Touel'alfar had taught him. How strong his arms had become from squeezing those stones! And how resilient his spirit had become from dealing with Tuntun. He could laugh about it now, but the treatment had brought him near to blows with the elf many times, and had actu-ally put him in a very real fight with her once - a fight that he lost badly. Despite the rough treatment, the humiliation and the pain, Elbryan had come to realize that Tuntun, in her heart, had only his best interests in mind. She was not his mother, not his sibling, and, at that time, not even his friend. She was his instructor, and her methods, however punishing, had been undeniably effective. Elbryan had come to love the elf maiden.

And now all that he had of Tuntun were his memories.

"Blood of Mather," he said with a sneer.


"That's what she always used to call me," Elbryan explained. "And, at first, she always edged it with heavy sarcasm. Blood of Mather."

"But you soon proved to her that it was a true enough title," came a melodious voice from within the shroud of fog, and not so far below the pair.

Elbryan knew that voice; so did Pony. "Belli'mar!" they called together.

Belli'mar Juraviel answered that call, emerging from the fog blanket, his gossamer wings beating to help him navigate the steep angle of the mountainous slope. The sheer beauty of the elf, his golden hair, his golden eyes, his angular features and lithe form, gave both humans pause and added to the already majestic aura of this place. Elbryan and Pony could almost hear music with every one of Juraviel's short, hopping steps, with every beat of his nearly translucent wings. His movements were a dance of harmony, of perfect balance, a compliment to Nature itself.

"My friends," the elf greeted them warmly, though there was also an edge to his voice that rang unfamiliar to Elbryan. Juraviel had started with them on the quest to Aida, as the sole representa-tive of the elven race, but sacrificed his place in the journey to serve as a guide for a band of haggard refugees.

Elbryan walked over and clasped hands with the elf, but the ranger's smile did not hold. He would have to tell Juraviel of the fate of his friend, for the elves had not known that Tuntun was fol-lowing the band. The ranger glanced back to his companion, his expression revealing his distress to Pony.

"You know that the demon dactyl has been defeated?" Pony asked, to get things moving.

Juraviel nodded. "Though the world remains a dangerous place," he answered. "The dactyl has been thrown down, but the fiend's legacy lives on, in the form of a monstrous army rampaging through the civilized lands of your human kin."

"Perhaps we should talk about these dark matters down in the valley," Elbryan put in. "Hope is ever-present under the fair boughs of Caer'alfar." He started moving down the slope, but Juraviel put out a hand to stop him, and the elf's suddenly grim expression showed that there was no possibility of debate on this subject.

"We will speak here," the elf said quietly.

Elbryan stood straight and studied his friend for a long moment, trying to decipher the emotions behind the unexpected declaration. He saw pain there, and a bit of anger, but not much else. Like all the elves, Juraviel's eyes possessed that strange and paradoxical combination of innocence and wisdom, of youth and great age. Elbryan would learn nothing more until Juraviel offered it openly.

"We have killed many goblins and powries, even giants, on our passage back to the south," the ranger remarked. "Yet it seems as if we have made little progress against the hordes."

"The defeat of the dactyl was no small thing," Juraviel offered, a hint of his smile returning. " 'Twas Bestesbulzibar who bound the three races together. Our ... your enemies are not so well orga-nized now, and fight with each other as much as they battle the humans."

Elbryan hardly heard the rest of the sentence after the elf had shifted possession of the enemies solely to Elbryan's people. The Touel'alfar had stepped out of the fight, he realized then, and that was something the world could ill afford.

"What of the refugees you escorted?" Pony asked.

"I delivered them to Andur'Blough Inninness safely," Juraviel replied. "Though we were accosted by the demon dactyl itself - a meeting in which I never would have survived had not Lady Dasslerond personally come forward from the elven home to stand beside me. We did get through to safety, and those beleaguered people have been delivered back to the southland with their kin,safe." Juraviel managed a chuckle as he finished the thought. "Though they returned south lacking quite a few of their more re-cent memories."

Elbryan nodded, understanding that the elves could work a bit of their own magic, including some to erase directions, as they had enacted that magic on him. Lady Dasslerond meant to keep the location of her valley secret at any costs. Perhaps that was why Juraviel was upset at his appearance here; perhaps, by returning, he had violated some elven code.

"As safe as any can be in these times," Pony remarked.

"Indeed," said the elf. "But safer now than before, due to the ef-forts of Elbryan and Jilseponie, and to the sacrifices of Bradwarden the centaur and Avelyn Desbris." He paused and took a deep breath, then looked Elbryan squarely in the eye. "And of Tuntun of Caer'alfar," he finished.

"You know?" the ranger asked.

Juraviel nodded, his expression grave. "We are not numerous. My people and our community are joined in many ways which hu-mans cannot begin to understand. We learned of Tuntun's death as Tuntun realized it. I trust that she died valiantly."

"Saving us both," Elbryan was quick to say. "And saving the quest. Were it not for Tuntun, Pony and I would have perished be-fore we ever reached the lair of the dactyl."

Juraviel nodded and seemed satisfied with that answer, a great peace washing over his fair features. "Then Tuntun will live on in song forever," he said.

Elbryan nodded his agreement with the sentiment, then closed his eyes and imagined the elves, gathered in a field in the valley, under a starry sky, singing of Tuntun.

"You should tell me the details of her death," Juraviel said. "But later," he added quickly, holding up his hand before Elbryan could begin. "For now, I fear, the business is more pressing. Why have you come here?"

The bluntness of his question, the almost accusing tone, set Elbryan back on his heels. Why had he come? Why wouldn't he, once he had remembered the way? It had never occurred to Elbryan that he might not be welcomed in Andur'Blough Innin-ness, a place he considered as much his home as any he had ever known.

"This is not your place, Nightbird," Juraviel explained, trying to sound friendly, sympathetic even, though the mere words he spoke could not help but wound Elbryan. "And to bring her here without the permission of Lady Dasslerond - "

"Permission?" the ranger balked. "After all that we have shared? After all that I have given to your people?"

"It was we who gave to you," Juraviel promptly corrected.

Elbryan paused and thought it over. Indeed, the Touel'alfar had given him much, had raised him from a boy, had trained him as a ranger. But the generosity had been reciprocal, the young ranger now realized, as he considered the relationship in the sober tones of Juraviel's attitude. The elves had given him much, that was true, but in return he had given to them the very course of his life. "Why do you treat me so?" he asked bluntly. "I had thought we were friends. Tuntun gave her life for me, for my quest, and did not the success of that quest benefit the Touel'alfar as well as the humans?"

Juraviel's stern expression, exaggerated by his angular features, softened somewhat.

"I wield Tempest," Elbryan went on, drawing forth the shining blade, a weapon forged of the secret silverel by the elves. "And Hawkwing," he added, pulling the bow from his shoulder. Hawkwing was fashioned from the darkfern, a plant the elves cultivated and which leached the silverel from the ground. "Weapons of the Touel'alfar both," the ranger went on. "Your own father crafted this bow for me, for the human friend and student of his son. And Tempest I rightfully carry, having passed the challenge of my uncle Mather's ghost - "

Juraviel held up his hand to stop the speech. "Enough," he begged. "Your words are true to me. All of them. But that does not change the details of this moment. Why have you come, my friend, unbidden, to this place which must remain secret?"

"I came to find out if your people will lend aid to mine in this time of great darkness," Elbryan replied.

A great sadness washed over the face of Belli'mar Juraviel. "We have suffered," he explained.

"As have the humans," Elbryan replied. "Many more humans have died than Touel'alfar, if all the elves of Andur'Blough Innin-ness had perished!"

"Not many of my people have perished," Juraviel admitted. "But death is only one measure of suffering. The demon dactyl came to our valley. Indeed, Lady Dasslerond had to take the foul fiend there to defeat it when it came upon me in my quest to rescue the refugees. The demon was sent away, but Bestesbulzibar, curse his name; left a scar upon our land, a wound in the earth itself that will never heal and that continues to expand despite all our efforts."

Elbryan looked to Pony, and her expression was grave. He did not need to explain the implications.

"There is no place in all the world for us save Andur'Blough Inninness," Juraviel went on somberly. "And the rot has begun. Our time will pass, my friend, and the Touel'alfar will be gone from this world, a children's fireside tale to most, a memory for those descendants of the few, like Nightbird, who knew us well."

"There is always hope," Elbryan replied past the lump in his throat. "There is always a way."

"And so we shall seek one," Juraviel agreed. "But for now, our borders are closed to any who isn'Touel'alfar. If I had not come out to you, if you had descended into the mist that veils our home, it would have choked you and left you dead on the mountainside."

Pony gave a surprised gasp. "That cannot be," she said. "You would not kill Nightbird."

Elbryan knew better. The Touel'alfar lived by a different code than did humans, one that few people could understand. To them, any who was not of their race, even those few selected to be trained as rangers, was considered inferior. The Touel'alfar could be among the greatest allies in all the world, would fight to the death to save a friend, would risk everything, as Juraviel had done with the refugees, out of compassion. But when threatened, the elves were unbending, and it didn't surprise Elbryan in the least to learn that such a deadly trap had been set up to keep strangers from their land in this time of peril.

"Am In'Touel'alfar ?"the ranger asked boldly, looking Juraviel right in the eye. He saw the pain there, a profound disappointment within his elven friend.

"It does not matter," Juraviel offered halfheartedly. "The mist distinguishes only physical form. To it, you are human, and nothing more. To it, you are indeedn'Touel'alfar."

Elbryan wanted to press that point, wanted to hear how his friend felt about the situation. This was not the time, he decided. "If there was any way in which I might have asked permission to come, and to bring Pony, I would have," he said sincerely. "I re-membered the path, and so I came, that is all."

Juraviel nodded, satisfied, then managed a sudden and warm smile. "And I am glad that you have," he said cheerily. "It is good to see you again, good to know that you - and you," he added, looking to Pony, "survived the ordeal at Aida."

"You know of Avelyn and Bradwarden?"

Juraviel nodded. "We have ways of gathering information," he said. "That is how I knew that two too-curious humans were approaching the warded borders of Andur'Blough Inninness. By all reports, only two forms, Nightbird and Pony, left the blasted Barbacan."

"Alas for Avelyn," Elbryan said somberly. "Alas for Bradwarden."

"A good man was Avelyn Desbris," Juraviel agreed. "And all the forest will mourn the passing of Bradwarden. Gentle was his song, and fierce his spirit. Often I would sit and listen to his piping, a melody so fitting to the forest."

Both Elbryan and Pony nodded at that notion. When they were children in Dundalis, in better, more innocent times, they had sometimes heard the melodious drift of Bradwarden's pip-ing, though at that time they had no idea who the piper might be. The people of the two Timberland towns, Dundalis and Weedy Meadow - for End-o'-the-World was not in existence then -??called the unknown piper the Forest Ghost and did not fear him, for they understood that no creature capable of making such hauntingly beautiful music would pose any threat to them.

"But enough of this," Juraviel said suddenly, pulling the small pack from his back. "I have brought food - good food! - andQuestel ni'Touel."

"Boggle," Elbryan translated, forQuestel ni'Touel was the elvish wine made from the water filtered through the milk stones. It was sometimes traded through secret channels to humans under the name of boggle, an elvish joke signifying both the bog from which the liquid originally came, and from the state of mind it readily produced in the humans.

"Let us go and set a camp," Juraviel offered. "Out of this wind and sheltered from the chill of the approaching night. Then we might eat and talk in a more comfortable manner."

The two friends readily agreed, and both realized then that their previous agitation had only been due to the search for the magical valley. Now that the issue of Andur'Blough Inninness was de-cided, they could both relax, for neither feared any goblin or powrie, or even giant- inspired trouble, this close to the borders of the elven home.

When they sat down to eat, Elbryan and Pony found that Juraviel wasn't exaggerating in the least concerning the quality of the food, he had brought: berries, plump and sweet, fruit fattened under the gentle boughs of Caer'alfar, and bread flavored with just a touch ofQuestel ni'Touel. Juraviel hadn't brought much with him, but it was immensely satisfying, and truly this was the finest meal that either of the weary travelers had enjoyed for many, many months.

The wine helped, too, taking the edge off the uncomfortable na-ture of their meeting, allowing Elbryan and Pony, and the elf, as well, to put aside the dangers of the continuing battle for just a while, to sit and relax and forget that their world was full of goblins and powries and giants. They spoke of times long past, of Elbryan's training in the elvish valley, of Pony's life in Palmaris and her time serving in the army of Honce-the-Bear's King. They kept their chatter lighthearted, mostly relating amusing anecdotes, and many of Juraviel's tales concerned Tuntun.

"Yes, I will find quite a bit of material for the song I plan for her," the elf said quietly.

"A rousing war song?" Elbryan asked. "Or a song for a gentle soul?"

The notion of Tuntun being described as a gentle soul brought laughter bubbling to Juraviel's lips. "Oh, Tuntun!" he cried dra-matically, leaping to his feet, throwing his arms heavenward and taking up an impromptu song:

Oh gentle elf, what poems hast thee written

To best describe thyself?

What lyrics spring from thy lips to Nightbird's waiting ears?

But since you hold his head in the trough, 'tis doubtful he can hear!

Pony howled with laughter over that one, but Elbryan fixed a nasty stare over his friend.

"What troubles you, my friend?" Juraviel prompted.

"If I remember correctly, it was not Tuntun, but Belli'mar Juraviel, who put my head in the trough," the ranger replied grimly.

The elf shrugged and smiled. "I will have to write another song, I fear," he said calmly.

Elbryan couldn't maintain the facade, and he, too, erupted in laughter.

Their boggle-enhanced mirth rolled on for several minutes, finally dying away to quiet titters, the occasional chuckle. That was followed by simple, reflective silence, all three silling, none moving to be the first to speak.

Finally Juraviel walked back over and plopped down across the small fire from Elbryan. "You should go to the south and east," he explained. "To the towns halfway between Dundalis and Palmaris. There you are most needed, and there you will do the most good."

"That is the battle line?" Pony asked.

"One of the battle lines," Juraviel replied. "There is greater fighting raging in the far east, along the coast, and up north, in the cold land of Alpinador, where mighty Andacanavar holds the elven-bestowed banner as ranger. But I fear that Elbryan and Pony would be only minor players in those greater battles, whereas you two might turn the tide in the more immediate area."

"The area closer to the borders of Andur'Blough Inninness," Elbryan said slyly, suspicious of the erf's motives.

"We do not fear any attacks from goblins or powries," Juraviel was quick to reply. "Our borders are safe from that enemy. It is the deeper evil, the stain of the demon dactyl..." He paused, his voice trailing away, letting the dark thought hang in the air.

"But you two should go to those towns," he said at length. "Do for those folk what you did for the people of Dundalis, Weedy Meadow, and End-o'- the-World, and all the region might soon be freed of the legacy of the demon dactyl."

Elbryan looked to Pony, and both gave a nod to the elf. Elbryan studied his diminutive friend closely then, seeking unspoken sig-nals that would clue him in to the importance of it all. He knew Juraviel well, and had a feeling that many things were not as set in stone as the elf had indicated.

"You two are formally betrothed?" Juraviel asked suddenly, catching Elbryan off his guard.

Pony and Elbryan looked to each other. "In our hearts," the ranger explained.

"There has not been time nor opportunity," Pony said, and then with a great sigh she added, "We should have asked Avelyn to per-form the ceremony. Could any have been more fitting to such a task than he?"

"If you are married in your hearts, then married you are," Juraviel decided. "But there should be a ceremony, a formal declara-tion made openly, to friend and to kin. It is more than a legality, and more than a celebration. It is a declaration, openly made, of fidelity and undying love, a proclamation to all the world that there is something higher than this corporeal form, and a love deeper than simple lust."

"Someday," Elbryan promised, staring at Pony, the only woman he believed he could ever love, and understanding every word Juraviel had just said.

"Two ceremonies!" Juraviel decided. "One for your human companions, one for the Touel'alfar."

"Why would the Touel'alfar care?" Elbryan said, a hint of anger in his tone, which surprised both his companions.

"Why would we not?" Juraviel replied.

"Because the Touel'alfar care only for the affairs of the Touel'alfar," Elbryan reasoned.

Juraviel started to protest, but saw where the trap was leading and only laughed instead.

"You do care," Elbryan said.

"Of course," Juraviel admitted. "And glad I am, and glad are all the elven folk of Caer'alfar, that Elbryan and Jilseponie survived the quest to Aida and have found each other. To us, your love is a shining light in a dark world."

"That is how I knew," Elbryan said.

"Knew what?" Juraviel and Pony asked together.

"That I ... we," he corrected, indicating Pony, "are notn'Touel'alfar. Not in the eyes of Belli'mar Juraviel."

The elf gave a great, exaggerated sigh. "I admit it," he said. "I surrender."

"And that is how I know the other thing, as well," Elbryan said, grinning from ear to ear.

"And what is that?" Juraviel asked, his tone one of feigned dis-interest. "What else does the wise Nightbird know?"

"That Belli'mar Juraviel intends to accompany us to the south and east," Elbryan replied.

That widened Juraviel's eyes. "I had not considered that!"

"Then do," Elbryan instructed, "because we, all three, leave at first light." He rolled back from the fire then, nestling into his bedroll. "Time for us to sleep," he said to Pony. "And time for our friend to go back to his valley, that he might tell his Lady Das-slerond that he will be away for a while."

Pony, weary from the road and the wine, and content with the meal, was more than happy to fall back into her blankets.

Juraviel said not a word and did not move for some time. Before him, both Elbryan and Pony were soon breathing in the rhythms of a deep and contented sleep, and behind him, Symphony nickered softly in the quiet night. Then the elf was gone, slipping away silently into the darkness, running with his thoughts and running to his lady.

Quiet though he was, his departure woke Pony, whose sleep had become filled with troubling dreams. She felt the weight of El-bryan's strong arm about her, felt the warmth of his body curled against her. All the world should have been warm and happy for her in that embrace.

But it was not.

She lay awake for a long while, and then Elbryan, too, as if sensing her anxiety, awoke.

"What troubles you?" he asked softly, nuzzling closer and kissing the nape of her neck.

Pony stiffened, and the ranger felt it. He pulled away and sat up, and she could see his dark silhouette against the starry sky. "I was only trying to be comforting," he apologized.

"I know," she replied.

"Then why are you angry?" he asked.

Pony considered that for a long while. "I am not angry," she de-cided. "I am only frightened."

Now it was the ranger's turn to pause and reflect. He lay back down beside Pony, shifting to his back and looking up at the stars. He had never known Pony to be frightened - not since the day their homes were sacked, at least - and he was certain now that her fears were not based on any powries or giants, or even the demon dactyl. He considered her tenseness when he had touched her. She was not angry with him, he knew, but...

"You were quiet when Juraviel spoke of marriage," he said.

"There was little you had not already said," Pony replied, rolling over to face Elbryan. "We share hearts, and are of like mind."


Her face clouded over.

"You are afraid of becoming with child," Elbryan reasoned, and Pony's expression shifted to one of wonderment.

"How did you know?"

"You just said that we were of like hearts," the ranger replied with a slight chuckle.

Pony sighed and draped her arm across Elbryan's chest, kissing him softly on the cheek. "When we are together, I feel like all the world is wonderful," she said. "I forget the loss at Dundalis, the loss of Avelyn and Bradwarden, of Tuntun. The world does not seem so terrible and dark, and all the monsters run away."

"But if you were to become with child now, out here," Elbryan said, "then those monsters would become all too real again."

"We have a duty," Pony explained. "With the gift the Touel'alfar gave to you, and the one Avelyn gave to me, we must be more to the folk than observers. How could I fight on if I become pregnant? And what life would our child know in these times?"

"How could I fight on if you could not remain beside me?" Elbryan asked, running his fingertips across her face.

"I do not wish to refuse you," Pony said. "Ever."

"Then I shan't ask," Elbryan replied sincerely. "But you told me that there were times each month when it was not likely that we would conceive a child."

"Not likely?" Pony echoed skeptically. "What chance is acceptable?"

Elbryan thought on that for just a moment. "None," he decided. "The stakes are too high, the cost too great. We will make a pact, here and now. Let us finish this business at hand, and when the world is put aright, we will turn our attention to our own needs and our own family."

He said it with such simplicity, and such optimism that this pact would be a temporary thing, that the world would indeed be put aright, that a smile found its way across Pony's troubled face. She snuggled closer then, wrapping herself around Elbryan, knowing in her heart that he would be true to his pact and that their love-making would wait until the time was right.

Both of them slept soundly the rest of the night.

Juraviel was back at the small camp when Pony awoke, to find their belongings already packed and in place atop Symphony. The sun was up, though still low in the eastern sky.

"We should already be on the road," a sleepy-eyed Pony said through a yawn and a stretch.

"I gave you this one night of sleep," Juraviel replied, "for I doubt you'll find another anytime soon."

Pony looked to Elbryan, still sleeping contentedly. Long and restful sleep, like other pleasures, would be a rarity now.

But only for a short while, she reminded herself determinedly.

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