Chapter 1: Passion for Life CHAPTER 1 PASSION FOR LIFE
THE ROOM WAS DARK, THE curtains drawn, but the ranger could see the gray of the predawn sky around their lace-trimmed edges. Instinctively he reached behind him, seeking the comforting, warm feel of his lover’s body, but she was not there.
Elbryan rolled over, surprised. Pony was not in the bed, nor even in the room, he realized as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. With a groan, for he was not accustomed to sleeping in any bed, let alone a soft one—and this one was especially pillowy, for the folk of the towns had given the ranger the finest bed in Caer Tinella—Elbryan rolled off the bed to his feet, straightened, and stretched. He went to the window, noting that Pony’s fine sword was not beside his own. That did not alarm him, though; as he came more fully awake, he could guess easily enough where she was.
When he pulled aside the curtains, he found that it was later than he had believed. The sky was thick with gray clouds, but he could tell that the top half of the sun was already peeking over the horizon. And the days this time of year were shortest of all, for they were now in the month of Decambria, the twelfth and last, and the winter solstice was less than three weeks away.
A scan of the forest north of the town showed the ranger the expected firelight. He went through a series of slow, exaggerated movements then, sliding low to the floor then back up, arms wide stretching, as he limbered up his six-foot three-inch, two-hundred-and-ten-pound, muscular frame. Then he pulled on his clothes and cloak quickly, wanting to join his love, and took up the magnificent Tempest, his elven-forged sword, the sword of his uncle Mather, the emblem of his position as ranger.
His room was on the northern edge of town, as he had requested, and so he saw few of the townsfolk as he rushed away—past a corral and the skeletal remnant of the barn he and Juraviel had burned on one escape from the monsters who had previously held Caer Tinella—and out into the forest.
A blanket of snow had settled thickly about the region only a week ago, but the weather had turned warmer since then. Now a low fog clung above the ground, blurring the trails, hiding the leafless branches. But the ranger knew the small, sheltered field he and Pony had chosen for their morning ritual: the elven sword dance, bi’nelle dasada.
He came upon her quietly, both not wanting to disturb her and also to glimpse her at the dance in its truest form.
And then he saw her and his heart was softened, and all his body felt warm.
She was naked, her feminine frame veiled only by the morning mists, her strong muscles glistening as they moved through the perfectly balanced interplay of bi’nelle dasada, weaving a wondrous dance of balance and motion. Elbryan could hardly believe how much he loved her, how much the sight of her thrilled and moved him. Her thick blond hair was longer now, reaching several inches below her shoulders and trailing her with every turn, as the sparkle of her blue eyes seemed to lead her. She held Defender, a fine, slender sword, its silverel blade shining in the dull morning light or sparkling suddenly with an orange flare whenever it caught the reflection of the campfire she had lit nearby.
The ranger crouched and continued to admire her, thinking it ironic, for it used to be Pony who spied on him at bi’nelle dasada in the days when she desired to learn the intricacies of the dance. How well she had studied! His admiration was twofold—one part of him impressed by the beauty of her movements, the level of harmony she had achieved in so short a time, and the other based in simple lust. He and Pony had not been intimate in several weeks, not since before the end of summer on the road to St.-Mere-Abelle to rescue Bradwarden, when she had unexpectedly broken their vow of abstinence and seduced him. Elbryan had tried to repeat that passionate scene several times since, but Pony had steadfastly refused. Looking at her now, he was nearly overwhelmed. Her allure was undeniable, the smoothness of her skin, the soft curves of her honed body, the movements of her hips, her legs, so shapely and strong. Elbryan could not imagine anyone more beautiful or enticing. He realized that he was breathing more heavily, that he was suddenly very warm—and though the day was not cold for the season, the air was surely not warm!
Embarrassed, feeling then that he was invading Pony’s privacy, the ranger pushed the lustful thoughts from his mind and fell fully into the meditative calm afforded him by his years of discipline with the Touel’alfar. Soon he left Elbryan Wyndon behind, taking on the calm attitude of Nightbird, the warrior title given him by the elves.
He untied his cloak and let it fall to the ground, then quietly pulled off the rest of his clothing. Taking Tempest in hand, he walked from the brush. So deep in concentration was Pony that she did not notice his approach until he was within a stride of her. She turned to face him, startled, and did not match his smile with her own.
Her expression, jaw set firm and blue eyes blazing intently, caught Nightbird off guard. He was even more surprised when Pony moved suddenly, throwing her sword into the ground near his feet so forcefully that its tip dug inches into the hardened earth.
“I—I did not mean to disturb you,” the ranger stammered, at a loss, for he and Pony had shared bi’nelle dasada for weeks, had sword-danced together since he had taught it to her, the two working as one that they might bring their fighting styles and movements into perfect harmony. Also, both of them had come to substitute the sword dance for a different form of intimacy, the one that they had agreed they could not now share.
Pony did not reply, except to halve the distance between them, staring up at him, breathing hard, sweat glistening on her neck and shoulders.
“I will leave if you desire,” the ranger started to say, but was cut short as Pony reached up suddenly, grabbing the hair on the back of his head, moving her body against his, and pulling his face down, while she came up on tiptoe, locking him in a hungry kiss.
Tempest still in hand, the ranger’s arms went around her, but loosely, unsure where this might be heading.
Pony showed no signs of relenting, her kiss growing more passionate, hungrier, with each passing second. The meditative state was long gone from Elbryan; no more was he the elven warrior. Still, he kept his wits about him enough finally to push Pony back a bit, to break the kiss and stare at her questioningly. For though they had proclaimed their love for each other openly, though they were—in the eyes of all who knew them; in their hearts; and truly, they believed, in the eyes of God—husband and wife, they had vowed to abstain from marital relations for fear that Pony, whose duties were no less demanding and dangerous than Elbryan’s, would become pregnant.
Elbryan started to ask Pony about that pact of abstinence, but she interrupted him with a growl. She reached over and pulled Tempest from his grasp and threw the sword to the ground, then went back at Elbryan, locking him in a deep kiss, her hands roaming about his back, and then lower.
Elbryan hadn’t the strength to protest. He wanted Pony so very badly, loved Pony so very deeply. Still locked in the passionate kiss, she slid down to the ground, pulling her lover atop her. The ranger wanted this moment to last, wanted to savor the beauty of lovemaking with Pony, so he tried to slow things down.
Pony roughly pushed him over onto his back and chased him all the way, urgently, hungrily, growling with every determined movement. Then they were joined and all was motion and sound. The stunned Elbryan fought hard to remove his thoughts from the tumult, trying to make some sense of it all. Always before, their lovemaking had been gentle and warm, full of words and teasing caresses. Now, it was physical, even angry; and the grunting, growling sounds escaping Pony’s lips were as filled with rage as with desire. Elbryan knew and understood that she wasn’t angry with him, but rather that she was releasing her anger at all the world through him. This was her release from, or denial of, all the horror and pain. And so Elbryan allowed her to lead him in this most intimate of dances, tried to give her what she most needed from him, both physically and emotionally.
Even when they were done, wrapped in Pony’s cloak and in each other’s arms near the small fire, there was no conversation, no questions. Too overwhelmed and too consumed by the physical release to press the issue, Elbryan dozed off, and was only half aware when Pony slipped from his grasp.
He awakened barely minutes later, to see Pony sitting in the middle of the small field beside their weapons, with Elbyran’s cloak pulled tightly about her. He studied the faraway look in her eyes, the glisten of a tear on her soft cheek.
Elbryan looked up at the empty grayness of the sky, as confused as he had been when Pony had locked him in that first kiss. And she was even more confused than he, he realized. He decided that he would wait patiently for his answers, would let her come to him.
When she was ready.
AN HOUR LATER, WHEN ELBRYAN returned to Caer Tinella, the town was bustling with activity. The ranger came back alone, for Pony had left him on the field without a word. She had kissed him tenderly though, perhaps in apology, perhaps merely to assure him that she was all right. Elbryan had accepted that kiss as explanation enough for the present, for to him no apology was needed; but no matter what Pony did or said it would not alleviate his fears for her. Their lovemaking that morning had been necessary for Pony, comforting and freeing, but the ranger knew that the demons within his lover had not been exorcised.
He was worrying about her, wondering what more he could do to help her, as he walked to his appointment with Tomas Gingerwart.
Though Elbryan arrived early, Tomas was already waiting for him in the centrally located barn that served as the town’s meeting hall. Tomas was a hardy man, not very tall but stocky and hardened from years of farming. He rose and extended his hand to Elbryan; the ranger clasped it noting that Tomas’ hand was rough and his grip strong. Elbryan realized that in all the weeks he had known Tomas, this was the first time they had shared a handshake. And Tomas had a wide smile—another rarity—on his dark face.
Tomas’ plans were in motion, the ranger realized.
“How fares Nightbird this fine day?” Tomas asked.
“Well, I would guess,” Tomas said lightly. “Your beautiful companion came through town only a few minutes before you, and from the same direction—from the northern forest.” Tomas offered a wink as he finished, a good-natured gesture and not lewd, but Elbryan returned it with a scowl.
“The caravan has been sponsored,” Tomas declared, clearing his throat and changing the subject. “If it wasn’t so late in the year, we could depart in a few weeks.”
“We must be certain that winter’s grip on the land is ended,” Elbryan replied.
“We?” Tomas asked with a smile. Ever since Elbryan and Pony had joined him in Caer Tinella, Tomas had been trying to persuade Nightbird to join his Timberlands-bound caravan, but the ranger had been elusive and had not committed to the journey. Tomas had pressed him hard, but fairly, though some of the sponsoring merchants would not provide their money and supplies unless the ranger agreed to lead the way.
Elbryan looked at the hopeful, crooked grin on the weatherworn face of Tomas Gingerwart and recognized that the man was his friend. “I will accompany you,” he confirmed. “Dundalis was my home, and Pony’s as well, and I believe that we have as great a stake in its rebuilding as any.”
“But what of your duties to the Kingsmen?” Tomas asked. It was no secret that Nightbird had been working with Shamus Kilronney, captain of the Kingsmen brigade, to ensure the security of the land. Shamus and the ranger had become friends, so it was rumored, and Pony was reportedly even closer to the man.
“Captain Kilronney is convinced that the region is secure,” Elbryan explained. “Pony spoke with him yesterday—and might again be with him this morning, discussing his plans for returning his brigade to the south.”
Tomas nodded, but he was obviously not thrilled with the news of the soldiers’ impending departure.
“She is trying to convince the captain to remain a bit longer,” Elbryan went on, “perhaps through the winter, and even to accompany us farther to the north in the spring. No doubt the King desires the reopening of the Timberlands as soon as possible.”
“He does indeed,” Tomas replied. “The merchant Comli, my chief sponsor, is a personal friend of King Danube Brock Ursal. Comli would not be so eager to press north unless he was certain of the King’s desire to reopen trade with the Timberlands.”
It all seemed perfectly logical to both men. During the war, many sailing ships had been lost or damaged by powrie barrelboats, and the only timber large enough to replace masts came from the appropriately named Timberlands, the land of Dundalis, Weedy Meadow, and End-o’-the-World.
“Perhaps Comli’s emissary should also speak with Captain Kilronney,” the ranger suggested.
Tomas nodded. “I will see to it,” he promised. “Glad I am to have Nightbird and Pony along on this dangerous journey, and every sword we can enlist will be a welcome addition. I need not explain my fears to you, for we both understand that no one has yet determined the extent of the retreat of the demon dactyl’s army. We might strike out to the north only to find ten thousand goblins, giants, and powries camped by the roadside, singing their songs of cruelty and torture!”
Elbryan managed to smile at that, for he did not believe the words for a moment. There might indeed be monsters up there, but not on the scale to which Tomas alluded—not with the binding force, the physical manifestation of the demon dactyl, destroyed.
“I only wish that Roger Lockless were here and could journey with us,” Tomas added.
“Belster will find him if he has returned to Palmaris,” Elbryan assured him. When Elbryan and Pony had passed through Palmaris on their return from St.-Mere-Abelle, they had not only established Belster as the new proprietor of Fellowship Way but also had charged him with finding Roger and telling the young man of their latest movements once he returned from his trip with Baron Rochefort Bildeborough to speak with the King. The ranger did not doubt that Roger would rush back to Caer Tinella to join him and Pony as soon as his duties to the Baron were ended.
“I hope he returns before the beginning of Bafway,” Tomas said, “for the start of the third month marks the start of our journey, unless the weather turns against us. It might be that the road will stay clear enough for him to get to us, if the weather holds.”
Elbryan nodded, noting the tension on the man’s face. Tomas was eager to go north, as were many others, but they were all taking this unseasonable weather too much to heart. The end of Calember had brought a fall of snow, but that had been almost completely melted by many days of warmer weather. It was important—to the King of Honce-the-Bear, to the Baron of Palmaris, to the merchants, and to men like Tomas—that once the Timberlands was free of monsters, men from Honce-the-Bear be the ones to resettle it and restore the timber trade. The Timberlands was the only area that could supply the needed logs for ships’ masts. By treaty, the Timberlands was not ruled by any of the three kingdoms—Honce-the-Bear, Behren, or rugged Alpinador—but it had always served the King and merchants of Honce-the-Bear well to have the region populated predominantly by their own. Rumors had come to Caer Tinella recently that the Alpinadorans meant to settle the deserted Timberlands, and while none feared that such a development would stop the trade in the large trees, all realized that it would make the merchants of Honce-the-Bear pay more dearly.
Elbryan had not been able to confirm those rumors and, in fact, believed that they might be merely a plant by Comli or some other fearful merchant to spur the caravan northward sooner. But the ranger couldn’t argue against the logic of getting back to the north. And aside from the practical considerations, there were personal ones. His father, Olwan Wyndon, had gone to Dundalis to live on the frontier, to tread places where no man had been, to view sights never seen by any man. Olwan Wyndon had taken great pride in his decision to go north and had become the unofficial leader of Dundalis.
Before the darkness awakened.
It was also near Dundalis, in a sheltered grove, that Elbryan had found the grave of Mather, his long-lost uncle—the elven-trained ranger who had come before him—and where he had earned Tempest, once Mather’s sword. And in the forest near Dundalis, Elbryan had met Bradwarden the centaur, a dear friend now returned to him, it seemed, from the grave itself. And in that same forest, Bradwarden had introduced Elbryan to the magnificent black stallion, Symphony, the ranger’s mount, the ranger’s friend.
His ties to the region were deeply rooted. Now he felt a duty to his dead father and family to go back and help rebuild Dundalis and the other two towns, then to serve as their protector, the quiet and little-seen ranger vigilantly patrolling the forest.
“Word has it that new settlers of the northern land are to be well rewarded,” Tomas remarked.
Elbryan looked at him carefully, noted how he rubbed his hands together. If Tomas wanted to go to the Timberlands to make his fortune, then Elbryan knew the man was in for a great disappointment. The life there was hard. Hunting, fishing, foraging, and farming were necessary as well as the trade in wood. No, a man did not settle in the Timberlands to get wealthy; he settled there to live in a freedom that could not be found anywhere else. Tomas could speak of being “well rewarded,” but Tomas would learn, if he did not already know, that those rewards came from more than the King’s gold.
“We get ahead of practical thinking,” Elbryan remarked. “Resettling Dundalis and the other towns depends upon whether or not the monsters have deserted the region. If they are still encamped, it will take more than the four score you mean to bring north to unseat them.”
“That is why we asked Nightbird to lead us,” Tomas said with a wink, “and Pony.”
“And that is why Pony is trying to convince Captain Kilronney to stay in Caer Tinella through the winter and then to come with us,” Elbryan replied. “Let us hope that he agrees.”
“And let us hope that he and his soldiers will not be needed,” Tomas added sincerely.
“AH, JILSEPONIE, HOW SAD I am to see that the light is out of your eyes.”
The melodic voice from above did not startle Pony, for she had suspected that Belli’mar Juraviel was about. She had chosen to come to this forested area south of Caer Tinella because it afforded her a view of the distant Kingsmen encampment and also with some hope of finding the elf, for Juraviel had been away for several days, scouting the southern roads. That morning, after Pony had crossed Caer Tinella, a group of Palmaris’ garrison soldiers had ridden down the road past her as she moved quietly through the shadows under the trees. The riders had already come from the village, she realized, and they were headed straight for the Kingsmen camp.
“How long will clouds fill your eyes?” Juraviel asked, fluttering his nearly translucent wings to settle on a branch at her eye level. “When will you let the sun sparkle in them again, that those around you might glory in the reflections?”
“I was thinking about my family,” Pony replied. “When I lost my mother and father in Dundalis, I lost all memories and thoughts of them for years. I would not have that happen to my memories of Graevis and Pettibwa.”
“But you were young then,” said Juraviel, to offer some hope to the beleaguered woman. “Too young to comprehend such tragedy, and so you let the tragedy pass out of your thoughts. Too young.”
“Perhaps I still am.”
“But…” the elf started to protest, but he saw that Pony didn’t blink, just kept looking absently toward the Kingsmen encampment. How sad for this young woman, who had lived for only a quarter of a century, to have lost two families! Looking at her now, Juraviel feared that her beautiful face would never brighten again.
“Tell me of the soldiers who rode in this morn,” Pony bade the elf suddenly.
“Palmaris garrison,” Juraviel replied, “riding hard. I shadowed them and hoped to listen to their conversation, but they did not stop or slow, and I heard not a single exchange of words.”
Pony chewed her lip, staring at the distant encampment, and Juraviel understood her concern. Had these soldiers come to tell the Kingsmen that she and Elbryan were outlaws?
“Baron Bildeborough is a friend,” Juraviel reminded her. “Your horse and sword are proof enough of that, even if you doubt Roger’s judgment.”
“I do not,” Pony was quick to reply. Juraviel’s point hit home; Baron Bildeborough was no friend of the Abellican Church, certainly. And Bildeborough had shown great faith in Roger by giving him Greystone and Defender, the horse and sword Roger had passed on to Pony.
“These soldiers are for the Baron, not the Church,” Juraviel went on. “And with Baron Bildeborough now understanding that it was a man of the Church who murdered his beloved nephew—apparently with the blessings, even orders, of the Church hierarchy—he’ll not take their side against you and Elbryan. No matter the promises of the Abellican Church leaders or the pressures from the King of Honce-the-Bear.”
“Agreed,” said Pony, and she turned to regard the elf. “But did you get a good look at the riders? Might Roger have been with them?”
“Only soldiers,” Juraviel assured her, and he did not miss the cloud that passed over her fair face. “It is possible that Roger has not yet returned to Palmaris from Ursal.”
“I only hoped,” Pony replied.
“You fear for him? He is in the company of a powerful man,” Juraviel pointed out, for they had been informed that Roger had gone to Ursal with Baron Bildeborough to speak with King Danube Brock Ursal himself. “Few on the western side of the Masur Delaval north of Ursal wield as much power and influence as Baron Rochefort Bildeborough.”
“Except perhaps for the new abbot of St. Precious.”
“But his power is just that,” Juraviel replied, “new. Baron Bildeborough holds the superior position, for he has been entrenched in Palmaris for many years, the heir to a long line of leaders. So Roger should be safe enough.”
The argument made sense to Pony, and her expression showed some relief.
“Yet still you want Roger back with us,” the elf continued.
“You wish him to accompany the caravan to Dundalis,” said Juraviel, for he had some suspicions about Pony’s intentions. Like all the Touel’alfar, Belli’mar Juraviel was blessed with the ability to sit back and study a situation, to observe and to listen, and then to reason things through.
“Roger is a valuable ally. I fear for his safety and prefer that he remains with Elbryan until he has learned more about the dangers of the wide world,” Pony said firmly.
Her words were spoken calmly, but perceptive Juraviel did not miss that Pony’s deep-seated resentment of the Church had evolved into absolute hatred. “With Elbryan?” he pressed. “With both of you, you mean?”
Pony gave a noncommittal shrug, and that halfhearted answer only reinforced the elf’s belief that she did not mean to go north with the caravan. He let the silence linger for a long while, let Pony alone with her thoughts as she stared at the distant encampment.
“I should go to Captain Kilronney,” she said finally.
“Perhaps he has been recalled to Palmaris,” Juraviel offered. “There are few monsters about,” he added when she looked puzzled. “A force as strong as his might better serve the King in other regions.”
“There is one troublesome group of powries to the west that he wishes to destroy before he turns south,” said Pony. “And, for Elbryan, I will soon ask Captain Kilronney to spend the winter in Caer Tinella and then accompany the caravan to Dundalis.”
“Indeed,” said the elf. “And will Jilseponie also accompany the caravan?”
His blunt question hit her hard, and she did not reply for several seconds.
“Of course, Elbryan thinks you will go,” Juraviel offered, “as does Tomas Gingerwart. I heard him say as much.”
“Then why would you ask—”
“Because I do not believe that you intend to make the journey,” Juraviel explained. “Your eyes are turned southward. Will you not return to your home?”
Pony was caught and she knew it—she even subconsciously glanced south again. “Of course I intend to return to Dundalis,” she said. “If that is where Elbryan goes, then it is my place.”
“And you have no say which place you two must share?”
“Do not twist my words,” she warned. “If I choose to live elsewhere, then do not doubt that Elbryan will follow me.”
“And what do you choose?”
Again came the shrug. “I will return to Dundalis, but not with the caravan,” Pony admitted.
Even though he had suspected as much all along, the proclamation stunned Juraviel.
“I will return to Palmaris for a time,” Pony went on. “I wish to look in on Belster O’Comely and see how he fares with Fellowship Way.”
“But you will have the time to go to Palmaris and see Belster, and then return before the caravan departs,” Juraviel reasoned.
“I have had enough of the northland and the fighting for now,” came Pony’s dismissive answer.
“That may be half true,” the elf replied. Pony looked at him, and saw he was wearing a knowing smile. “You believe that your fight has just begun. The Father Abbot of the Abellican Church has waged war on the family of Jilseponie, and now she means to take the war to him.”
“I could not begin—” she started to reply.
“No, you could not,” the elf interrupted. “Do you intend to travel back to St.-Mere-Abelle to wage war against nearly a thousand battle-trained and magic-wielding monks? Or will you attack St. Precious and their new abbot, who, according to Master Jojonah, is the finest warrior ever to venture forth from St.-Mere-Abelle? And what of Elbryan?” the elf pressed, following Pony then, for she started to walk away. “How will he feel when he learns that you deserted him, that you could not trust him to join this course you have chosen for yourself?”
“Enough!” Pony snapped, spinning to face him. “I am not deserting Elbryan.”
“If you go to wage war privately, then you are.”
“You know nothing about it.”
“Then tell me.” The simple manner in which Juraviel spoke calmed Pony considerably, reminded her that the elf was a friend, a true friend, to be trusted.
“I do not go south to wage war,” she explained, “though do not doubt that I intend to repay the Abellican Church for the pain it has brought me.”
A shiver coursed Juraviel’s spine; he had never heard Pony sound so cold before—and he did not like it, not one bit.
“But that will wait,” Pony went on. “Dundalis is the primary issue for Elbryan and for Roger, if he ever returns to us. And I know that we all must wait to discover what transpired during Baron Bildeborough’s meeting with the King. Perhaps my war with the Church will not be so private after all.”
“Then why do you look south?” Juraviel asked quietly.
“On the road to St.-Mere-Abelle, when I thought we would meet a dark end or that this issue—all of it—would be resolved, I seduced Elbryan.”
“You are husband and wife, after all,” the elf replied with a grin.
“We had made a pact of abstinence,” Pony explained, “for we feared—”
“You are with child,” Juraviel realized, his golden eyes opening wide.
Pony, neither with words nor expression, denied it.
“But perhaps you are wrong,” Juraviel offered. “That was but a few weeks ago.”
“I knew the morning after we made love,” Pony assured him. “I know not if it is my work with the gemstones, the soul stone in particular, or perhaps it is merely the miracle of life itself, but I knew. And all that has happened—or more pointedly, not happened—in the ensuing weeks has shown that I am with child, Belli’mar Juraviel.”
Juraviel’s smile widened all the more as he considered the potential for this child, born of such parents. That smile dissipated though when Juraviel looked up to consider Pony’s frown.
“You should be joyous!” he said to her. “This is an occasion for celebration and not for scowls.”
“The war is not nearly at its end,” Pony said. “Dundalis has yet to be reclaimed.”
“A minor issue,” the elf replied. “And forget your wars, Jilseponie Wyndon. Consider that which is within you the most important matter for you and Elbryan.”
Pony did manage a smile at the name Jilseponie Wyndon, the first time Juraviel had ever called her that. “You’ll not tell Elbryan,” she said, “not about my plan to go south, and not about my… our child.”
“He has a right to know,” Juraviel started to protest.
“And so he shall know—by my words and not yours.”
Juraviel dipped a respectful bow.
“I will go to Captain Kilronney,” Pony explained. “Let us see what these new soldiers have come about.” She walked past him, and the elf fell in behind her, to shadow her movements from the forest. If they were wrong about the new soldiers, if these riders had come north in search of two outlaws, then Juraviel would stand beside his friend.
The elf spent a long time considering that notion: his friend. What would Lady Dasslerond—leader of the Touel’alfar—and the others of Caer’alfar think if they understood the depth of that truth within Belli’mar Juraviel’s heart? Other elves had befriended Nightbird during his stay in the elven valley, and Tuntun had become close to the man, and to Jilseponie. But always before—when Juraviel decided to go to Mount Aida with the companions to battle the demon dactyl and when afterward the elf chose to lead human refugees to the elven valley; when Dasslerond allowed those pitiful humans in that secret elven place; even when Tuntun chose to follow the expedition to Aida and ultimately to sacrifice her life—the elven choices had been made out of practicality and the prospects for gain to the elves. Now, though, if Elbryan and Pony were to be engaged in a battle, it would be a fight between humans, a fight that had nothing to do with the good of the elven folk, and Juraviel’s participation in the matter would not change the outcome.
Yet he would fight with his friends—and die with his friends, if that came to pass. Indeed, the elf’s choice to go to St.-Mere-Abelle to help rescue Bradwarden and Jilseponie’s adoptive parents had been based wholly in friendship.
Lady Dasslerond would not approve, Juraviel knew, for this conflict between his friends and the Church was one that must be decided by the humans. Juraviel’s actions then and now were not in accord with the general tenets of elven society, which placed the good of the elves above all, believing the life of a single elf worth far more than those of a thousand of another race—even humans, whom the elves did not dislike.
But Juraviel would follow Pony now, and if a fight came, he would stand and die beside his friend.
AS SOON AS ELBRYAN LEFT Tomas—the discussion ended by the tumult as the Palmaris soldiers rumbled through Caer Tinella on their way to find the Kingsmen—he started straight off to find Symphony and ride for the camp. Like Pony, he feared that the arrival of these soldiers might have something to do with the gemstones and the escape of the imprisoned centaur from St.-Mere-Abelle. Also, he assumed Pony was already meeting with Captain Kilronney. The ranger breathed a bit easier as he neared the camp’s perimeter and saw no scars of explosive magic: if Pony were there and the soldiers had tried to take her, her magical barrage would likely have leveled half the encampment!
“Greetings, Nightbird!” a sentry called. Another soldier moved to take Symphony’s reins, but the ranger waved him away.
“New arrivals?” he asked.
“Palmaris garrison,” the soldier explained. “They are in discussion with Captain Kilronney.”
“And with Jilseponie?”
“To be sure, she has not yet arrived,” the soldier replied.
Elbryan directed Symphony into the encampment and was greeted warmly by all he encountered, men and women whose respect he had earned in the last couple of weeks, in the few battles the group had waged against rogue bands of monsters. Captain Kilronney’s soldiers had been glad to have Nightbird—and Jilseponie!—by their side when the fighting began. The ranger, in turn, had come to know and respect these soldiers; if the new arrivals had come with malicious intent in search of him and Pony, the word had not yet spread.
The ranger’s relief faded when he dismounted and entered Captain Kilronney’s tent. So grave were the expressions of Kilronney and the others that Elbryan’s hand went to the hilt of his sword.
“What news?” the ranger asked after a tense moment.
Kilronney eyed him squarely. The captain was taller than Elbryan by two inches, and was solidly built, though nowhere near as heavily muscled as the powerful ranger. His neatly trimmed beard and mustache were strikingly red, as was his bushy hair; and all that added contrast to his intensely blue eyes—eyes that now showed a profound sadness and anger to perceptive Elbryan.
Shamus Kilronney looked to the leader of the Palmaris contingent, and the ranger tensed, almost expecting an attack. “What news?” Elbryan demanded again.
“Who is this man?” asked the leader of the Palmaris garrison, a solidly built woman, nearer to six feet in height than to five, with hair as fiery red as Kilronney’s hanging in thick braids. Her eyes, like the captain’s, were sparkling blue. It seemed to Elbryan that these two might even be siblings—except that her accent was closer to the rural dialect typical of the underclass, while Shamus Kilronney’s diction and enunciation were perfect.
“He is an ally,” Kilronney explained, “serving as scout for my garrison.”
“A mere scout?” the woman remarked, and she raised her eyebrows as she considered the powerful ranger. Elbryan saw her suspicions etched there and also a bit of curiosity.
“His accomplishments are too many for me even to begin to list them now,” Kilronney said impatiently.
The woman nodded.
“Baron Rochefort Bildeborough is dead,” Kilronney bluntly explained.
Elbryan’s green eyes went wide. His first thought was for Roger, whom he knew was traveling with Bildeborough.
“He got murdered on the road just south o’ Palmaris,” the woman explained, her voice strong and determined—and hiding great pain, Elbryan realized. “They’re sayin’ his carriage was attacked by some beast, a great cat most likely.”
“On his way back from Ursal?” the ranger asked.
“On his way to Ursal,” the woman corrected.
“But that was months ago,” the ranger protested. What he was thinking was that, if the woman’s words were true, he and Pony had passed through Palmaris after the murder and yet had heard nothing of it.
“We didn’t think to make the trip north a priority,” the woman said dryly, “bigger nobles to tell than Captain Shamus Kilronney and his dirty friend.”
“What of his companions?” the ranger asked, ignoring the insults and accepting the woman’s explanation for the lack of communication.
“All killed,” the woman replied.
Elbryan’s thoughts whirled.
“They’d set their camp,” another soldier offered. “Seems they were caught unawares. The Baron tried to get back into his carriage, but the cat followed him in and tore him up.”
From the few words the soldier had offered, Elbryan had great doubts concerning the nature of this beast. In his years with the Touel’alfar, he had been taught the ways of animals, hunter and hunted. There were great cats about, though very few remained in the civilized lands between Palmaris and Ursal. But such creatures would not normally attack and slaughter a group of men. A hunting cat might take a lone person for food, might even stay with its victim and fight off any others who tried to take the prize from it, but the telling clue here was the pursuit of the Baron into his carriage.
“I seen it meself,” another soldier offered. “All of ’em, torn up and lying in a pond o’ blood.”
“And who was killed first?” the ranger asked.
“Had to be one o’ the guards at the fire,” the man replied. “One never even got his weapon out afore the cat ripped him dead, and the others got no chance to set any defense.”
“So the Baron was the last killed—in his carriage?”
The man nodded, his lips tight, as if he were choking back pain.
It made little sense to Elbryan, unless some diseased animal had attacked or unless a group of cats—an unlikely occurrence—had come in together.
“How many were eaten?” he asked the witness.
“They was all ripped,” the man said. “Their guts was spillin’ out. One of ’em had his heart laying open on his chest! I’m not for knowing how many bites the cat took of each.”
“And ye’re thinkin’ this to be needed?” the woman protested to Captain Kilronney.
Kilronney turned a plaintive look upon Elbryan, but the ranger had his hand up, signaling that he would not press the issue further. He didn’t need to. No hungry cat would leave as tempting a morsel as a heart uneaten, and no cat would spend the energy killing fleeing people when there was a fresh kill to be eaten. If the man’s description of the scene was accurate, then the Baron had not been killed by any natural beast.
And of course that led Elbryan to even more disturbing thoughts. He had seen the gemstones at work many times, had spoken with Avelyn about them at length, and knew of one that could transform a man’s arm into an animal’s paw.
“The men about the Baron,” the ranger began calmly, “did you know them all?”
“One was a friend,” the witness replied. “And I seen the others with him before. The Baron’s closest guard, they were!”
The ranger nodded. “I have heard that another—not a soldier—was traveling with Baron Bildeborough.”
“The little fellow,” the woman remarked. “Yeah, we heared o’ him.”
“And was his body at the camp?”
“Didn’t see ’im,” the witness replied.
That gave Elbryan a bit of relief but didn’t confirm anything. The cat, if it was a cat, might have dragged Roger away to eat. Even more plausibly, the monk, if it was a monk, might have taken Roger prisoner, seeking information about Elbryan and Pony.
“What is your course?” he asked the Palmaris leader.
“We come ridin’ to tell Captain Kilronney o’ the Baron, as runners have been sent in every direction,” she replied.
“The death of the Baron holds tremendous implications for Palmaris,” Shamus Kilronney remarked, “especially following so closely on the murder of Abbot Dobrinion.”
“The city’s been in brew all the season,” the woman added. “The new abbot’s just returned from another trip to St.-Mere-Abelle—some College of Abbots, whatever that might be meanin’—and now he’s taken his place, and a bit more than that, but he’s not without his rivals.”
The ranger nodded, hearing the words as confirmation of his worst fears. He had once met the new abbot of St. Precious—only briefly but long enough to recognize that De’Unnero was an unpleasant man, full of fire and pride. Bildeborough’s death left a gaping hole in the power structure—his only heir, Connor, was dead, as was Abbot Dobrinion—that Abbot De’Unnero would hasten to fill. And the fact that De’Unnero had gone back to St.-Mere-Abelle for this college made the ranger fear the abbot might have had a prisoner, Roger Lockless, in tow.
It seemed to Elbryan then that the Abellican Church was a great black monster, rising to block out the sun. He considered his journey to Aida to battle the dactyl and his trip to St.-Mere-Abelle to steal his friends from the clutches of the Father Abbot, and he understood that those two missions had not been so very different—not at all.
“And what course for you?” Elbryan asked Kilronney.
The man blew a helpless sigh. “I should return to Palmaris,” he said, “to see if I can help secure the city.”
“You are needed here,” the ranger reminded. “Winter may strike hard at these folk and bring in monsters that they cannot overcome without your help. And then there is the matter of the caravan north, before the start of spring.”
“Ye’re not for comparin’ the reopenin’ o’ the Timberlands to the security of Palmaris?” the woman protested incredulously, moving closer to the captain and locking him with an intense gaze—one that reflected familiarity, Elbryan noted, thinking again that there might be a family relation here.
The ranger looked at Kilronney, but the captain only shrugged, defeated by the simple logic of the woman’s statement.
“What of the powrie band in the west?” the ranger asked, for he and Kilronney had previously discussed their plans concerning one troublesome band of bloody cap dwarves who had not left the region, looming as a threat to any who might venture outside the secure area of Caer Tinella and Landsdown.
“We will deal with them at once,” Shamus Kilronney offered.
The woman soldier began to protest.
“And then, if the weather holds and leaves the road clear, my men and I will turn to the south,” Shamus said in a tone that left no room for debate.
The woman growled and turned away to stare intently at the ranger.
“I give you Nightbird,” Captain Kilronney said, finally introducing him.
The ranger lifted his chin slightly but did not bow.
“Nightbird?” the woman asked, her expression sour. “A strange name.”
“And this is Sergeant Colleen Kilronney of the Palmaris guard,” Shamus explained.
“Your sister?” the ranger asked.
“Cousin,” replied Shamus, somewhat distastefully.
“From the better part o’ the family,” Colleen was quick to put in, and Elbryan couldn’t tell if her tone was serious or not. “Oh, me cousin’s learned to speak so proper and pretty for courtin’ ladies in Ursal. He’s even been to the King’s dinner table.”
Shamus glowered at her, but she just gave a derisive laugh and turned to the ranger.
“Well, Master Nightbird—” she began.
“Just Nightbird,” the ranger explained.
“Well, Master Nightbird,” Colleen went on without missing a beat, “seems ye’ve got yer fight with the bloody caps. Me and me soldiers’ll go along for the fun. We’re all a bit troubled by the happenin’s in Palmaris, and it might be good for us to take out our worries on the powries.”
The other two Palmaris soldiers, grim-faced, nodded.
Shamus Kilronney said, “We have not much time. The battlefield must be chosen and prepared.”
“Ye make yer own battlefield when ye draw yer sword,” stubborn Colleen put in.
Elbryan eyed the captain and then his cousin. There was an intense rivalry here, obviously, and the ranger understood that such feelings could lead to disaster in a fight. “I will learn where the powries have gone and choose the appropriate ground for our attack,” he said, and he walked from the tent.
“Ye’re a bit trustin’,” he heard Colleen complain.
“None can prepare a battlefield better than Nightbird,” Shamus was saying as Elbryan, shaking his head and smiling, mounted Symphony and started away. His amusement over Colleen Kilronney was short-lived, though, lasting only as long as it took him to consider again the grim news the woman had delivered.
He found Pony nearing the encampment even as he was leaving it, and he trotted Symphony over to her.
She eyed him suspiciously, and she knew even before he began to speak that something was wrong.
“Baron Bildeborough was murdered on the road, before he ever got near Ursal,” Elbryan said, sliding down to stand beside his wife, “along with all his guard—though no sign of Roger was discovered among the dead.”
“Powries again?” came Juraviel’s voice from the trees, dripping with sarcasm. “Same clan that killed Abbot Dobrinion, no doubt.”
“That thought may hold more truth than you believe,” the ranger replied. “Those who found the Baron say he was killed by a great cat, but while the wounds might prove consistent with such a creature, I doubt the motive will.”
“Tiger’s paw,” Pony spat, referring to the gemstone the monks could use to transform their limbs into those of a great cat. She closed her eyes and put her head down, sighing deeply, and Elbryan draped his arm around her shoulders, sensing that she needed the support. Every new encounter or word about the Abellican Church weighed heavily on Pony; every action these monks engaged in that was so unholy, so against the principles that had guided dear Avelyn, only reinforced her grief for her lost parents.
“Palmaris is in turmoil,” Elbryan said, speaking more to Juraviel. “Our time with Captain Kilronney and his soldiers grows short. We should dispatch that powrie band before we depart.”
“And what of Roger?” Pony was quick to ask. “Are we to continue our duties here, even go farther away, while he might be in terrible peril?”
Elbryan held his hands out helplessly. “There was no sign of Roger, among the dead or anywhere on the road,” he explained.
“He may have been taken,” Juraviel offered.
“If he has been sent to St.-Mere-Abelle, I will go back,” Pony declared, her tone so cold that it sent a shiver through Elbryan. He suspected that she meant to go in through the front doors this time, and leave little standing in her wake.
“And if he has been taken, then of course we will go for him,” Elbryan assured her. “But we do not know that, and in the absence of evidence, we must hold our trust in Roger and continue our planned course.”
“But if we continue to the north, or go against the powries, how will we discern Roger’s fate?” Pony protested.
It was a dilemma, but the ranger remained unconvinced that they should drop everything and go in search of Roger Lockless. The man was a survivor. When Elbryan and Juraviel had gone into Powrie-occupied Caer Tinella to rescue him, they had found him already free. “I have no answers,” the ranger admitted. “I know that I must trust Roger. If he was killed on the road, then there is nothing I can do about it.”
“You would not avenge a friend?” Pony’s words cut deep.
Elbryan stared at her as if she were a stranger, some different person than the one he had come to love so dearly.
Pony couldn’t match that stare. She lowered her head and sighed again. “Of course you would,” she admitted. “I am afraid for Roger, that is all.”
“We can send word to Belster O’Comely in Palmaris,” Juraviel offered. “The city is too large for us to go wandering about in an attempt to locate Roger. But Belster, so centered in the town, might be able to glean some information.”
“All gossip flows through Fellowship Way,” Pony added hopefully.
“I will go to Tomas Gingerwart,” Elbryan offered, “and secure a trusted courier.”
“None would prove more trustworthy than I,” Pony said as the ranger took a step away.
Elbryan stopped in his tracks and closed his eyes; it took a long while for him to secure control of his anger. Then he turned to her slowly, astonished that she would take such a step.
“I must go and meet with Bradwarden,” Juraviel remarked. “We will scout out the powries and report this evening.” And the elf was gone, leaving the two, who had hardly heard his words, to their conversation.