The Demon Spirit

CHAPTER 9 Old Friends Well Met

"So it is true!" the portly man cried, seeing Elbryan and Pony as they walked into the encampment beside the returning archers.

"Belster, my old friend," the ranger replied. "How good it is to see you faring well."

"Well indeed!" Belster declared. "Though we've been a bit short of rations of late." He patted his ample belly as he spoke. "You will see to that, I am sure."

Both Pony and Elbryan chuckled at that remark - ever did Bel-ster O'Comely have his priorities in order!

"And where is my other friend?" Belster asked. "The one whose appetite rivals my own?"

A cloud passed over Elbryan's face. He turned to Pony, who was even more distressed.

"But the reports from the forest spoke of great stone magic," Belster protested. "Magic such as only the Mad Friar used to hurl. Do not tell me that he died this very night! Oh, what tragedy!"

"Avelyn has passed from this life," Elbryan replied somberly. "But not this night. He died in Aida, when he destroyed the demon dactyl."

"But the reports from the forest..." Belster stuttered, as though trying to use logic against the ranger's words.

"The reports of the fighting were correct, but spoke of Pony," Elbryan explained, putting his arm across the woman's shoulders. "It was she who put the stones to their powerful use." He turned to his love and lifted his other hand to stroke her thick golden mane. "Avelyn taught her well."

"So it would seem," Belster remarked.

The ranger pulled himself away from the woman and struck a determined pose, staring back at Belster. "And Pony is ready to carry on the work where Avelyn finished," he declared. "In the bowels of smoky Aida, Avelyn destroyed the demon dactyl and turned the tide of this war, stealing the binding force from our ene-mies. Now it lies before us to finish the task, to rid our lands of these wicked creatures."

To all those around, the ranger seemed to grow a bit taller as he spoke, and Belster O'Comely smiled knowingly. This was the charm of Elbryan, the mystique of Nightbird. Belster knew that the ranger would inspire them all to new heights of battle, would guide them as one pointed and focused force, striking hard at every weakness among their enemy's ranks. Despite the news about Avelyn, de-spite his mounting fears about the missing Roger Lockless, it seemed to Belster that the world got a bit brighter that night.

The tallies of the victory proved impressive. The forest was lit-tered with the bodies of dead goblins and powries, and several gi-ants. Six men had been wounded, one gravely, and three others were missing and presumed dead. Those who had carried in the worst of the wounded did not expect the man to live through the night - indeed, they had only carried him back that he might say his farewells to his family and be properly buried.

Pony went to him with the hematite, working tirelessly hour after hour, willingly sacrificing every ounce of her own energy.

"She will save him," Belster announced to Elbryan a short time later, when he and Tomas Gingerwart found the ranger as he tended to Symphony, wiping the horse down and cleaning the hooves. "She will," the former innkeeper repeated over and over, obviously trying to convince himself.

"Shamus Tucker is a good man," Tomas added. "He does not de-serve such a fate."

All the while he was speaking, Elbryan noted, Tomas looked di-rectly at him, almost accusingly. It seemed to Elbryan that Tomas considered Pony's work with the wounded man to be some kind of a test.

"Pony will do all that is possible," the ranger answered simply. "She is strong with the stones, nearly as strong as was Avelyn, but she used most of her energy in the battle, I fear, and has not much left to give to Shamus Tucker. When I am done with Symphony, I will go to her to see if I can be of any assistance."

"You tend to the horse first?" There was no mistaking the open accusations in Tomas Gingerwart's tone.

"I do as Pony instructed me," the ranger replied calmly. "She wished to start the healing process alone, for in that solitude she might find deeper levels of concentration, and thus a more intimate bond with the wounded man. I trust in her judgment, and so should you."

Tomas cocked his head, regarding the man, and gave a slight and unconvincing nod.

A nervous Belster cleared his throat and nudged his stubborn companion. "Do not think us ungrateful - " he started to apologize to Elbryan.

The ranger's laugh cut him short and he blustered with surprise. He looked to Tomas, who was obviously angry, thinking he was being mocked.

"How long have we lived like this?" Elbryan asked Belster. "How many months have we spent in the forest, fighting and running?"

"Too many," Belster replied.

"Indeed," said the ranger. "And in that time, I have come to understand much. I know why you are mistrusting, Master Gingerwart," he said bluntly, turning from Symphony to stand directly be-fore the man. "Before Pony and I arrived, you were one of the unquestioned leaders of this band."

"Do you imply that I cannot see the greater good?" Tomas asked. "Do you believe that I would place my own desire for power above - "

"I speak the truth," Elbryan interrupted. "That is all."

Tomas nearly choked on that proclamation.

"You are fearful now, and so you should be," the ranger went on, turning back to his horse. "Anytime one in your position of great responsibility senses a change, even a change that appears to be for the good, he must be wary. The stakes are too high."

Belster hid his smile as he studied the change that came over Tomas. The ranger's simple reasoning, honesty, and straightforward manner were truly disarming. Tomas' agitation had passed its peak now, with the man visibly relaxing.

"But understand," Elbryan went on, "that I, and Pony, are not your enemies, nor even your rivals. We will help out where we may. Our goals, as are your own, are to rid the land of the dactyl's evil minions, even as we helped rid the world of the demon itself."

Tomas nodded, seeming somewhat placated, if a bit confused.

"Will the man live?" Belster asked.

"Pony was hopeful," the ranger replied. "Her work with the hematite is nothing short of miraculous."

"Let us hope," Tomas added sincerely.

The ranger finished tending to Symphony soon after, then sought out Pony and the wounded man. He found them under the shelter of a lean-to, the man sleeping comfortably, his breathing steady and strong. Pony was asleep, too, lying right across the man, one hand still holding tight to the soul stone. Elbryan thought to take the hematite and try to do some healing of his own on Shamus Tucker, but changed his mind, reasoning that sleep might be the best cure of all.

The ranger moved Pony slightly, trying to make her more com-fortable, and then he left them. He went back to Symphony, thinking to make his bed there, and to his relief found Belli'mar Ju-raviel waiting for him.

"I led the small group back to Caer Tinella," the elf explained, his voice grim. "And there found a hundred powries, a like number of goblins, and several more giants waiting to join in the chase."

"More giants?" the ranger echoed incredulously, for it was not common for the behemoths to gather in numbers above a handful. The sheer potential for devastation of such a force stole Elbryan's breath. "Do you think they mean to march on Palmaris?" he asked.

Juraviel shook his head. "More likely they are using the towns as staging areas for smaller excursions," he reasoned. "But we should keep careful watch on Caer Tinella. The leader there is a powrie of apparently great renown; even the giants bow before him, and in all the time I spent hiding in the shadows in the town, I did not hear a single word of dissent against him, even when reports began coming in of the disaster in the forest."

"We haven't stung them so hard, then," the ranger remarked.

"We have stung them," Juraviel replied, "and that may serve to only make them more angry. We should watch the south and watch it well. The next force coming to find your friends will be over-whelming, I am sure."

Elbryan instinctively glanced to the south, as though expecting a horde of monsters to be tearing through the trees.

"There is another matter," Juraviel went on, "concerning a par-ticular prisoner the powries have taken."

"It is my understanding that the powries have many prisoners in many towns," Elbryan replied.

"This one may be different," Juraviel explained. "This one knows of your friends in the forest; indeed, he is highly regarded among them, much as you were among the people of Dundalis and the other towns of the Timberlands."

On the edge of the clearing, sheltered by the thick boughs of a pine, Belster O'Comely watched the ranger curiously. Beside him, Tomas was more animated, and only the portly innkeeper's constant prodding prevented the man from getting them both discovered.

Elbryan was talking, to himself, it appeared, though Belster sus-pected he might know the reason. The ranger was looking up into a tree, to an apparently empty branch, and holding a conversation, though they could not come close to making out the words.

"Your friend's a bit of a loon?" Tomas whispered in Belster's ear.

Belster shook his head resolutely. "All the world should be so crazy," he replied.

Too loudly.

Elbryan turned and cocked his head, and Belster, knowing the game was up, led Tomas from behind the pine. "Ah, Elbryan," the portly man said. "There you are. We have been searching all about for you."

"Not so hard to find," the ranger replied evenly, suspiciously. "I went to Pony - your friend is resting well and appears as though he will survive - and then back here to Symphony."

"To Symphony and ..." Belster prompted, nodding toward the tree.

The ranger stood calm and did not answer. He wasn't sure how Tomas might react to Juraviel, though Belster had seen the elf and several other Touel'alfar during the time he fought with Elbryan in the north.

"Come now," Belster went on, "I know Elbryan well, and would not expect him to be standing alone and talking to himself."

You should sit with me at Oracle, the ranger thought, and gave a slight chuckle.

"You've brought a friend, unless I miss my guess," said Bel-ster. "A friend whose special talents bode well for me and my companions."

Elbryan motioned for the two men to join him by the tree, and Belli'mar Juraviel, picking up the cue, hopped from the branch, using his nearly translucent wings to flutter down to a soft landing beside his ranger friend.

Tomas Gingerwart nearly jumped out of his boots. "What in all the dark holes in all the strange world is that?" he bellowed.

"That is an elf," Belster calmly explained.

"Touel'alfar," Elbryan added.

"Belli'mar Juraviel, at your service," the elf said, bowing low to Tomas.

The big man only nodded stupidly, wagging his head, wagging his lips.

"Come now," Belster said to him. "I told you of the elves that fought with us at Dundalis. I told you of the catapult caravan, where Brother Avelyn nearly blew himself up, and of the elves who stung our enemies from the trees."

"I... I... I did not expect..." Tomas stuttered.

Elbryan looked to Juraviel, who seemed almost bored by the typical reaction.

With a loud sigh, Tomas managed to steady himself.

"Juraviel has been to Caer Tinella - " Elbryan began to explain.

"I would have asked him to do so if he had not," Belster interrupted anxiously. "We fear for one of our own, Roger Lockless by name. He went into town this very evening, shortly before the monsters came out after us."

"Either their march toward our position began as a search for him, or they have him, it would seem," Tomas added.

"The latter," Elbryan informed them. "Juraviel has seen your Roger Lockless."

"Alive?" both men asked together, their tone showing true concern.

"Very much so," the elf replied. "Wounded, but not too badly. I could not get close; the powries have him under tight and watchful guard."

"Roger has been a thorn to them since they arrived," Tomas explained.

Belster then recounted the many tales of Roger's adventures, the thievery, the mocking jokes left behind, his common practice of having goblins take the blame for his nighttime raids, and the freeing of Mrs. Kelso.

"You will need to fill large shoes, Nightbird," Tomas Gingerwart said gravely, "if you are to replace Roger Lockless."

"Replace him?" the ranger balked. "You speak as if he is already dead."

"In the clutches of Kos-kosio Begulne, he may as well be," Tomas replied.

Elbryan glanced to Juraviel, the two exchanging wry smiles. "We shall see," the ranger said.

Belster nearly hopped for joy, his hopes soaring.

Elbryan was surprised to find Pony up and waiting for him when he arose the next morning, the eastern sky just beginning to brighten with the hint of dawn.

"I would have expected you to sleep the day away after your ef-forts with the stones," the ranger said.

"I would, were this not so important a day," Pony replied.

Elbryan wore a puzzled expression, but only for a moment as he considered Pony's stance, her sword belted at her hip. "You wish to learn the sword-dance," he reasoned.

"As you agreed," said Pony.

The ranger's lack of enthusiasm showed clearly. "There are so many matters to attend to," he explained. "Roger Lockless, an im-portant figure to these folk, is held prisoner in Caer Tinella, and we have to take a reckoning of the band, to see who can fight and who cannot."

"So you do not intend to do your own sword-dance this morning?" Pony asked, and the ranger knew he was caught by her logic.

"Where is Juraviel?"

"He was gone when I awoke," Pony replied. "But is he not gone every morning, after all?"

"To his own sword-dance, likely," said the ranger. "And to scout the area. Many of the Touel'alfar prefer this time of day, just before the dawn."

"As do I," said Pony. "A fine time forbi'nelle dasada."

Elbryan could not hold out against her persistence. "Come along," he said. "Let us find a place where we might begin."

He led her through the dark forest and down into a small shallow where the ground was flat and clear of any large brush.

"I have seen you fight," he explained, "but I have never really found the chance or the cause to examine your style. A few simple attack and defense routines should suffice." He motioned for her to step out into the clearing to give the demonstration.

Pony eyed him curiously. "Should we remove our clothes?" she asked coyly.

Elbryan blew a frustrated sigh. "You intend to keep teasing me?" he asked helplessly.

"Teasing?" Pony replied too innocently. "I have seen you at the sword- dance, and - "

"Are we here to learn or to play?" the ranger said firmly.

"I was not teasing," Pony retorted in a voice just as determined. "I only mean to keep you interested as the weeks of this war drag on." She stepped into the clearing then and drew out her sword, set-ting herself in a low crouch.

But then she was grabbed by the shoulder and turned about, to find Elbryan, his expression perfectly serious, staring into her eyes.

"It was not my choice to abstain," he said quietly, seriously. "Nor yours. It was a decision made necessary by circumstance, and one I tolerate, but do not enjoy. Not at all. You need not worry about keeping me interested, my love. All my heart is yours, and yours alone." He bent to her and kissed her softly, but didn't allow that to melt into something deeper and more passionate.

"We will find our time," Pony promised him as they broke the embrace. "A time and place for me and for you, when we do not need to act for the betterment of the whole world. A time when you can be Elbryan Wyndon, and not Nightbird, and when our love can safely bring us children."

They held the pose for a long while, staring at each other, both taking such great pleasure and comfort in the other's mere pres-ence. Finally the tip of the sun came above the eastern rim and broke the trance.

"Show me," the ranger bade her, stepping back.

Pony fell back into her crouch, spent a long moment steadying herself, mentally preparing herself, then went into a routine of at-tack and defense, her sword whipping expertly through the air. She had spent years in the King's army perfecting these maneuvers, and her swordplay now was nothing short of spectacular.

But it was typical, Elbryan knew, so indicative of the fighting style common throughout the land, a style mimicked by goblins and powries. Pony's hips turned repeatedly as she brought her weight behind each slashing cut, wading forward and then scam-pering back in defense.

When she finished, she turned, her face red from the effort, her smile wide with pride.

Elbryan walked up beside her, drawing out Tempest. "Strike that branch," he bade her, indicating a low limb three feet away.

Pony settled, then stepped ahead, one, two, sword going high and back, then rushing forward.

She stopped in mid-swing as Tempest stabbed past her, sticking deep into the branch. She had taken a full step before Elbryan had even started the movement, and yet he had beaten her to the mark easily.

"The lunge," he explained, holding the pose, his body fully ex-tended, right arm out straight, left arm turned down behind his trailing shoulder. He retreated suddenly, settling back into a defen-sive posture in a mere second. "Your weaving and slashing maneuvers are excellent, but you must add the hinge, that sudden, swift stab that no powrie, no opponent, can expect or deflect;"

In response, Pony assumed the ranger's stance, balancing her-self perfectly, knees out over her feet, legs angled perpendicular to each other. She stepped out suddenly with her right leg, left arm dropping, right arm extending, mimicking Elbryan's move almost perfectly.

The ranger didn't even try to hide his surprise, or his approval. "You have been studying me," he said.

"Forever," Pony answered, falling back to defensive posture.

"And you almost got it right," Elbryan remarked, deflating her obvious pride.


"Your body led the way," the ranger explained. "And yet it is your sword which should pull you forward."

Pony looked down at her blade skeptically. "I do not understand."

"You will," Elbryan said with a grin. "Now come along. Let us find a better area where we might properly executebi'nelle dasada."

They found a proper clearing soon after, Elbryan going off to the side to prepare himself, affording Pony some measure of mod-esty as she undressed. Then they met on the field with their weapons, the ranger leading the dance, Pony attuning herself to his every move.

For a long while Elbryan watched her, gauging her fluidity and grace, marveling at how easily she picked up the dance. Then he let himself fall into his own meditative trance, his own routine, let the song ofbi'nelle dasada flow through his body.

For a short while Pony tried to keep up, but soon she was only watching, awestruck by the beauty, the interplay of muscle, the continually shifting but always perfect balance.

When he finished, he was covered in sweat, as was Pony, the gentle wind tickling their skin. They stood regarding each other for a long while, and it seemed to each of them as if they had just achieved a level of intimacy no less than lovemaking.

Elbryan reached up and tenderly stroked Pony's cheek. "Every morning," he said. "But take care that Belli'mar Juraviel does not learn of this."

"You fear his reaction?"

"I do not know if he would approve," the ranger admitted. "This is among the highest rituals of the Touel'alfar, and only they have the right to share it."

"Juraviel admitted that you were notn'Touel'alfar," Pony re-minded him.

"And I feel no guilt," the ranger replied, somewhat convinc-ingly. "I will teach you - I only wish the decision to be kept mine alone."

"To protect Juraviel," Pony reasoned.

"Go and dress," Elbryan said with a smile. "The day will be long and arduous, I fear."

Pony walked back to the brush at the side of the field, satisfied with her morning's work, though truly exhausted. For all these weeks she had desired to begin the sword-dance, and now that she had completed her first experience with it, she was surely not disappointed.

Somehow, the sword-dance felt to her like the training she had received with the magical stones, a gift, a growth, moving her to her potential, moving her closer to God.



Once again, Uncle Mather, I am amazed by the resilience of people pushed into a desperate situation. As it was in Dundalis, I have found here a group willing to fight and to die - men and women, young children even, and older folks who should be spending their days telling stories of their long-past adventures. I have seen some terrible suffering, and yet have heard little in the way of complaint - other than the sounds of stomachs rumbling for lack of food.

And with the common suffering comes an altruism that is truly heartwarming and inspiring. As it was with Paulson, Cric, and Chipmunk, who gave their lives for a battle that really wasn't for them to fight, as it was with gallant Bradwarden, who certainly could have chosen a different path, it is now with Belster and Tomas, Roger Lockless and all the others.

I have my fears, though, mostly for an unintentional rivalry that may spring up between myself and the leaders of this band. When I led the fighters in the forest back to the refugee encampment after our great victory, I sensed true tension with Tomas Gingerwart, who, until my arrival, acted as one of the leaders of the forest band, perhaps the strongest voice of all. A calm conversation quickly cured that potential ill, for Tomas has been seasoned by years and experience. As soon as he was assured that he and I both fought for the same goal - the benefit of the people under his care - the rivalry was no more.

But not so, I fear, with another of the band whom I have not yet even met, an impetuous young fellow named Roger. By Belster's words, Roger is young and proud, and has ever been insecure in his position among the refugees, even to the point that he considered Belster and the folk from the northland as potential rivals. What will he think when he meets Pony and me? How will he react when he sees the respect afforded us, particularly from those who knew us in the north, or from those who followed us in the battle in the forest?

In truth, Uncle Mather, I think it ironic that these displaced folk think of me as a hero. For when I see their faces, every one, the expressions of men and women put to the test for perhaps the first time, I see the truest heroism.

Because that is something that cannot be judged by the quality of training and the quality of weapons, Uncle Mather. Simply because I was trained by the Touel'alfar and carry with me weapons of great power, am I any more heroic than the woman who throws herself between danger and her children, or the farmer who trades plowshare for sword to defend his community? Am I more heroic because my chances of winning the battle are greater?

I think not, for heroism is measured in strength of heart, not strength of arm. It is a marker of the conscious decisions, the selflessness, the willingness, to sacrifice everything, in the knowledge that those who follow you will be better off for your efforts. Heroism is the ultimate act of community, I think, the sense of belonging to something bigger than one's own mortal coil. It is rooted in faith: in God, or even in the mere belief that the whole of the goodly folk is stronger when each individual part cares for the others.

It is an incredible thing to me, this resilience, this inner strength, this human spirit. And in admiring it, I realize that we cannot lose this war, that in the end, even if that end be a thousand years hence, we will triumph. Because they cannot kill us, Uncle Mather. They cannot kill the resilience. They cannot kill the inner strength.

They cannot kill the human spirit.

I look into the faces of the men and women, the children, too young for such trials, the aged, too old for such battle, and I know this to be true.

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