I am afraid, Uncle Mather, not for myself, but for all the goodly people of all the world. Pony and I rode south from the Barbacan with our hearts heavy in grief, but with hope. Avelyn, Tuntun, and Bradwarden gave their lives, but in destroying the dactyl, we had, I believed, taken the darkness from the world.
I was wrong.
Every running stride Symphony carried us south would bring us to more hospitable lands, so I thought, and so I told Pony, whose doubts were ever greater than mine. I cannot count the numbers of goblins we have seen! Thousands, Uncle Mather, tens of thousands, and with scores of fomorian giants and hundreds of cruel powries as well. It took Pony and me two weeks and a dozen fights to reach the area near Dundalis, and there we found only more enemies, firmly entrenched and using the remnants of the three towns as base camps for furthering their mischief. Belster O'Comely and the raiding band we set up before we went to the Barbacan are gone--to the south as we discussed, I pray. But so vast is the darkness encompassing the land that I fear nowhere will be safe.
I am afraid, Uncle Mather, but I vow to you now that no matter how bleak the situation becomes, I will not surrender my hope. That is something not the demon dactyl, not the goblins, not all the evil in all the world, can take from me. Hope brings strength to my sword arm, that Tempest may cut true. Hope allows me to keep fashioning arrows as score after score are lost to goblin hearts--a line of monsters that seems not at all diminished by my efforts.
Hope, Uncle Mather, that is the secret. I think that my enemies are not possessed of it. They are too selfish to understand sacrifice in the hope that it will bring better things for those who come after them. And without such foresight and optimism, they are often easily disheartened and chased from battle.
Hope, I have learned, is prerequisite for altruism.
I will hope and I will fight on, and with every battle I am reminded that my attitude is not folly. Pony grows strong with the stones, and the magical forces she conjures are indeed incredible. Also, our enemies, for all their numbers, no longer fight in any coordinated fashion. Their binding force, the demon dactyl, is gone, and I have seen signs that goblin battles goblin.
The day is dark, Uncle Mather, but there may yet be a break in the clouds.
Chapter 1: Another Day
Elbryan Wyndon collected his wooden chair and his precious mirror and moved to the mouth of the small cave. He blinked as he pulled the blanket aside, surprised to see that the dawn was long past. Climbing out of the hole seemed no easy task for a man of Elbryan's size, with his six-foot-three-inch muscular frame, but with the agility given him in years of training with the lithe elves of Caer'alfar, he had little trouble navigating the course.
He found his companion Jilseponie, Pony, awake and about, gathering up their bedrolls and utensils. Not so far away, the great horse Symphony nickered and stomped at sight of Elbryan, and that image of the stallion would have given most men pause. Symphony was tall, but not the least bit lanky, with a powerful, muscled chest, a coat so black and smooth over those rippling muscles that it glistened in the slightest light, and eyes that projected profound intelligence. A white diamond-shaped patch showed on the horse's head, above the intelligent eyes, but other than that and a bit of white on the forelegs, the only thing that marred the perfect black coat was a turquoise gemstone, the link between Symphony and Elbryan, magically set in the middle of the horse's chest.
For all the splendor, though, the ranger hardly paid Symphony any heed, for, as was so often the case, his gaze was locked on Pony. She was a few months younger than Elbryan, his childhood friend, his adult wife. Her hair, thick and golden, was just below her shoulders now, longer than Elbryan's own light brown mop for the first time in years. The day was lightly overcast, the sky gray, but that did little to dim the shine of Pony's huge blue eyes. She was his strength, the ranger knew, the bright spot in a dark world. Her energy seemed limitless, as did her ability to smile. No odds frightened her, no sight daunted her; she pressed on methodically, determinedly.
"Do we look for the camp north of End-o'-the-World?" she asked, the question shattering Elbryan's contemplation.
He considered the thought. They had discerned that there were satellite camps in the region, clusters of goblins, mostly, supplied by the larger encampments set up in what used to be the three towns of Dundalis, Weedy Meadow, and End-o'-the-World. Because the towns were each separated by a day's walk, Dundalis west to Weedy Meadow, and Weedy Meadow west to End-o'-the-World, these smaller outposts would be key to regaining the region--if ever an army from Honce-the-Bear made its way to the borders of the Wilderlands. If Elbryan and Pony could clear the monsters from the dense woods, there would remain little contact between the three towns.
"It seems as good a place as any to start," the ranger replied.
"Start?" Pony asked incredulously, to which Elbryan could only shrug. Indeed, both were weary of battle now, though both knew that many, many more fights lay before them.
"Did you speak with Uncle Mather?" Pony asked, nodding toward the mirror. Elbryan had explained Oracle to her, that mysterious elven ceremony in which someone might converse with the dead.
"I spoke at him," the ranger replied, his olive-green eyes flashing as a shiver coursed his spine--as always happened when he considered the ghost of the great man who had gone before him.
"Does he ever answer?"
Elbryan snorted, trying to figure out how he might better explain Oracle. "I answer myself," he started. "Uncle Mather guides my thoughts, I believe, but in truth, he does not give me the answers."
Pony's nod showed that she understood perfectly what the young man was trying to say to her. Elbryan had not known his uncle Mather in life; the man had been lost to the family at a young age, before Olwan Wyndon--Mather's brother, Elbryan's father--had taken his wife and children to the wild Timberlands. But Mather, like Elbryan, had been taken in and trained by the Touel'alfar, the elves, to be a ranger. Now, in Oracle, Elbryan conjured his image of the man, an image of a perfect ranger, and when speaking to that image, Elbryan was forcing himself to uphold his own highest ideals.
"If I taught you Oracle, perhaps you could speak with Avelyn," the ranger said, and it wasn't the first time he had suggested as much. He had been hinting that Pony might try to contact their lost friend for several days now, ever since he himself tried, and failed, to reach Avelyn's spirit at Oracle two days after they had started south from the blasted Barbacan.
"I do not need it," Pony said softly, turning away, and for the first time Elbryan realized how disheveled she appeared.
"You do not believe in the ceremony," he started to say, more to prompt than to accuse.
"Oh, but I do," was her quick and sharp retort, but she lost momentum just as abruptly, as if fearing the turn in the conversation. "I ... I might be experiencing much the same thing."
Elbryan stared at her calmly, giving her the time to sort out her response.
As the seconds passed into minutes, he prompted, "You have learned Oracle?"
"No," she answered, turning to look at the man. "Not quite the same as your own. I do not seek it. Rather, it seeks me."
"It is Avelyn," Pony said with conviction. "He is with me, I feel, somehow a part of me, guiding me and strengthening me."
"As I feel about my father," Elbryan reasoned. "And you about yours. I do not doubt that Olwan is watching over ..." His voice trailed away as he looked at her, for Pony was shaking her head before he finished.
"Stronger than that," she explained. "When Avelyn first taught me to use the stones, he was badly injured. We joined, spirit to spirit, through use of the hematite, the soul stone. The result was so enlightening, for both of us, that Avelyn continued that joining over the weeks, as he showed me the secrets of the gemstones. In a mere month my understanding and capabilities with the stones progressed far beyond what a monk at St.-Mere-Abelle might learn in five years of training."
"And you believe that he is still connecting with you in that spiritual manner?" Elbryan asked, and there was no skepticism in the question. The young ranger had seen too much, both enchanting and diabolical, to doubt such a possibility--or any possibility.
"He is," Pony replied. "And every morning, I wake up to find that I know a bit more about the stones. Perhaps I dream about them, and in those dreams see new uses for any given stone, or new combinations between them."
"Then it is not Avelyn, but Pony," the ranger reasoned.
"It is Avelyn," she said firmly. "He is with me, in me, a part of who I have become."
She went quiet, and Elbryan did not respond, the two of them standing in silence, digesting the revelation--one that Pony had not made even to herself until this very moment. Then a smile spread across Elbryan's face, and Pony gradually joined him, both taking comfort that their friend, the Mad Friar, the runaway monk from St.-Mere-Abelle, might still be with them.
"If your insight is true, then our business becomes easier," Elbryan reasoned. He held his smile and offered a wink, then turned, moving to pack Symphony's saddlebags.
Pony didn't reply, just methodically went about closing down the campsite. They never stayed in a place more than a single night--often not more than half the night if Elbryan determined there were goblin patrols in the area. The ranger finished his task first, and with a look to the woman, to which she responded with an assenting nod, he took his sword belt and wandered away.
Pony hurriedly finished her task, then silently stalked after him. She knew his destination to be a clearing they had passed right before they set camp, and knew, too, that she would find ample cover in the thick blueberry bushes on its northeastern end. Stalking quietly, as Elbryan had taught her, she finally settled into place.
The ranger was well into the dance by then. He was naked, except for a green armband set about his left biceps, and was holding his great sword Tempest, which had been given by the Touel'alfar to his uncle, Mather Wyndon. Gracefully, Elbryan went through the precise movements, muscles flowing in perfect harmony, legs turning, body shifting, keeping him always in balance.
Pony watched, mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the dance, which the elves called bi'nelle dasada, and her love's perfection of form. As always when she spied on Elbryan's dance--no, not Elbryan, for in this fighting form he was the one the elves had named Nightbird, and not Elbryan Wyndon--Pony had pangs of guilt, feeling quite the voyeur. But there was nothing sexual or prurient here, just appreciation of the art and beauty of the interplay between her love's powerful muscles. More than anything, she wanted to learn that dance, to weave her own sword in graceful circles, to feel her bare feet become so attuned to the moist grass below them that they could feel every blade and every contour in the ground.
Pony was no minor warrior herself, having served with distinction in the Coastpoint Guards. She had battled many goblins and powries, even giants, and few could outfight her. But in looking at Elbryan, the Nightbird, she felt herself to be a mere amateur.
That dance, bi'nelle dasada, was perfection of the art form, and her lover was perfection of bi'nelle dasada. The ranger continued his slashing, weaving maneuvers, feet turning, stepping to the side, front, back, body going down low and then rising in graceful sequences. This was the traditional fighting style of the day, the slashing routines of the heavy, edged swords.
But then, abruptly, the ranger shifted his stance, heels together, feet perpendicular to each other. He stepped ahead, toe-heel, and went into a balanced crouch, his knees bending out over his toes, front arm cocked, elbow down, and rear arm similarly bent except that his upper arm was level with his shoulder, his hand up high and hanging loose. He went forward then retreated in short, measured, but impossibly quick and balanced steps, and then suddenly, right from one such retreat, his front arm extended and seemed to pull him. It happened in the blink of Pony's eye, and this morning, as with every such strike, it stunned her. So suddenly, Nightbird had come forward, the tip of Tempest covering at least two feet of ground, his back arm turning down so he made one long and balanced line.
A shudder coursed down Pony's spine as she pictured an enemy impaled on that deadly blade, staring wide-eyed in disbelief at the suddenness of the attack.
And then the ranger retracted, again quickly and in balance--no opening in his defenses throughout the move--and went back to his weaving dance.
With a sigh of both appreciation and frustration, Pony snuck away, back to finish closing down the camp. Elbryan returned to her soon after, showing sweat on his exposed arms but looking revitalized and ready for the trials of another day on the road.
They set out soon after, both astride the great stallion, with Symphony easily carrying them along. Elbryan guided them north, away from the line of the three towns, and then west, toward End-o'-the-World, and before midday they had found the smaller goblin encampment. A quick survey of the area provided the information they needed, and they retreated to the deeper woods to unladen Symphony and prepare their assault.
By early afternoon the ranger was creeping through the woods with Hawkwing, his elven-crafted bow, in hand. He came upon a group of three goblin perimeter guards soon enough, and, as was usually the case, the slovenly creatures were not on their best guarding posture. They were clustered about a wide elm, one leaning on the tree, one pacing before it and grumbling about something, and the third sitting at the base, back against the trunk, apparently asleep. The ranger was somewhat surprised to see that one of these guards carried a bow. Goblins usually fought with club, sword, or spear, and the sight of the bow tipped him off that there might well be powries in the vicinity.
The ranger did a silent circuit of the area, ensuring that no others were about, then found his best angle of attack. Up came Hawkwing, so named for the three feathers set on its top end, which separated like the feathered "fingers" on the end of a hawk's extended wing when he drew back the bowstring. Those feathers went widely apart now as Elbryan lined up his shot.
Hawkwing hummed; the ranger had a second arrow up and away almost immediately. He was the Nightbird now, the elven-trained warrior, and the mere mention of his name sent trembles through the hearts of even the sturdiest powries.
The first arrow nailed the leaning goblin to the tree. The second took out its pacing companion before the creature had time to cry out its surprise.
"Duh?" the third asked, coming from its slumber when Nightbird prodded it. The goblin looked up just in time to see Tempest's descent, the mighty sword cleaving its head in half.
The ranger retrieved his arrows, then took a couple from the goblin's quiver. They weren't well-crafted, hardly straight, but would suit his purposes well enough.
On he went, drawing a complete perimeter of the encampment. He encountered two more guard positions, and dispatched them with equal efficiency. Then he went back to Pony and Symphony, better detailing the layout, his attack plans already formulated. The goblin camp itself was well-placed on a low bluff amidst a tumble of boulders. There were only two apparent approaches: one on the southeast up a trail between shoulder-high walls of stone, a path that turned in from a thirty-foot sheer drop; the second up the gentler-sloping western side of the hillock, a wide track of empty grass.
Nightbird positioned himself in a copse of trees on the western side, where he could find clearer shooting, while Pony made her tentative way along the top of the cliff face.
The ranger moved to a higher position, climbing from Symphony's back to one of the lower branches of an oak. That still left him below the level of the goblin camp, but with more than half of it exposed. Pony would wait for him, he trusted, and so he took his time in selecting his first target, trying to get a feel for the hierarchy of this patrol. No two groups of goblins were alike, the ranger had learned, for the smallish, yellow-green creatures were purely selfish and not devoted to any greater cause than fulfillment of their present desires. The demon dactyl had changed that--that sudden coordination of the monsters was the element that had made the darkness so complete--but now the dactyl was gone and the wretched creatures were fast reverting to their previous, chaotic nature.
This encampment reflected that clearly. All the place was a tumult, pushing and shoving, shouting and grumbling.
"We goes south for killing!" Nightbird heard one creature shout.
"We goes the way I says we goes!" replied one especially weasely little runt, a spindly-armed and bow-legged wretch, short even by goblin standards--which meant that it barely topped four feet--and with a nose and chin so narrow that they appeared to be arrow shafts protruding from its ugly face.
The ranger saw the larger goblin standing before the runt clench its hands in rage, saw the group of three goblins closest him--all carrying bows, he noted with disdain--put hands near their quivers. The tension held, silent for many seconds, just below an explosive level, and then another form rose up, a giant form, fifteen feet tall and more, two thousand pounds of muscle and bone.
The fomorian stretched away its sleepiness and ambled over to join the conversation. The giant beast said not a word, but stood right behind the weasely goblin--and how that creature puffed its skinny chest with its bodyguard so near!
"South," the other said again, but in a calm and unthreatening manner. "Peoples to kill to the south."
"We was told to stay here and guard," the weasely goblin insisted.
"Guard from what?" the other whined. "From bears or boars?"
"Me bored," offered another, from the side, drawing a few halfhearted snickers--laughter that died away quickly when the weasely goblin put an unrelenting stare on the jokester.
It was all taking shape perfectly from Nightbird's perspective, except of course for the appearance of a fomorian giant. His first instinct told him to put an arrow into that behemoth's face, but as he considered the general dynamics of the group, another, more insightful plan began to unfold.
The arguing continued, followed by more than a few loud threats by the weasely goblin, the creature gaining in confidence with the giant standing right behind it. The goblin ended by promising a cruel death to any that defied its commands, and then it turned about, walking away.
Nightbird, using one of the arrows he had taken from the goblins, nailed it in the back, at an angle that sent the missile right between two of the archers at the camp's edge. The goblin went down hard, squirming and screaming, trying to reach about to grab the painful bolt, and all the gathering erupted in pushing and shoving, in accusations and cries of murder.
The three archers were the most confused, each yelling at the other two, each counting the arrows in their counterparts' quivers. One cried for a check of the shaft of the arrow in their leader's back, claiming that its own arrows had specific markings.
The enraged fomorian had no such patience for any investigation, though. The giant stalked over and slugged the protesting archer in the face, launching it head over heels down the grassy slope. The giant grabbed a second archer as the third scrambled away, lifting the unfortunate creature and squeezing the life out of it. All the rest of the camp fell upon the third, taking its flight as an admission of guilt. Their blood lust in full, they pounded and stomped long after the poor creature had stopped squirming.
For the ranger, watching the brutal spectacle was a confirmation of his belief in the absolutely irredeemable nature of the wretched beasts. The killing was over quickly, but the pushing and shoving and accusations did not relent. He had seen enough, though. There were perhaps a dozen goblins left in the camp, not counting the leader, who wouldn't be up for any fighting anytime soon, and, of course, the one fomorian. Thirteen against three, counting Symphony.
The ranger liked the odds.
He hopped down from the tree, onto the back of waiting Symphony. The great stallion gave a snort and rushed away, out the back side of the copse. The last thing Nightbird wanted was bring the goblins charging down the slope, where they could scatter. He went west, and then south, and then turned back to the east, coming in sight of Pony, who was in position at the end of the long and narrow trail. They shared a wave, and the ranger searched out a new vantage point. Now came his turn to wait.
The goblin camp remained astir, with accusations flying. The creatures seemed perfectly oblivious to the notion that an outsider might have shot down their leader, until Pony struck hard.
A goblin appeared at the end of the trail, leaning on one wall of stone. It removed its metal helmet--another oddity for the crude creatures--and scratched at its hair, then replaced the cap, talking all the while with another who remained out of Pony's line of sight. She focused on the one goblin, on its helmet, as she held before her a black, rough-edged stone, magnetite, or lodestone, by name. Pony fell into the stone, saw through it, down the trail. Everything blurred and fogged over--everything except for that one helmet, the image of it sharpening to crystal clarity. Pony felt the energy building within the stone, energy she lent to it, combined with its own magical properties. She felt the attraction to that helmet growing, growing, the stone beginning to pull against her grasp.
As she reached the pinnacle, as it seemed the stone would verily explode with tingling magic, she let it go. In the blink of an eye it covered the distance and smashed against then through the helmet, and the goblin flipped over once and lay dead.
How its companion shrieked!
Pony was not surprised when the fomorian giant turned down the narrow trail, running full out and bellowing with rage. She held forth another stone, malachite, the stone of levitation, and before the behemoth had gone three strides, it found that its feet were no longer touching the ground. It was moving, though, its momentum propelling its suddenly weightless form in a straight line.
The trail curved slightly and the giant brushed the wall. It tried to reach down and find a hold, but the movement came too late and only sent the creature tumbling head over heels, twisting and turning, reaching desperately for any potential handhold.
Pony could hardly believe the effort needed to keep the behemoth aloft, and knew she would not be able to hold it there for long. She didn't have to, though. She ducked very low--the giant spinning over more quickly as it grabbed for her--and let the creature soar past her. Then, as soon as the giant moved out over the cliff, she dropped her concentration, releasing the stone's magical energy, and let the brute drop.
Looking back the other way, she saw a handful of goblins at the far end of the trail, gaping at her but not yet daring to approach. Quickly she went for her third stone, the graphite, and reached deep inside herself to find some more magical energy. Already she had done more magic in rapid succession than ever before, and she had little faith that her next casting, a bolt of lightning, would have much power behind it.
She took hope, then, in the commotion that sprang up on the hillock behind the goblins, at the screams and cries of agony, at the sound of charging Symphony off to the side and the thrum of the ranger's deadly bow.
But her love could not get there in time to help her, she knew. A line of five goblins came on, rushing down the narrow trail, howling. One let fly an arrow that barely missed the young woman.
Pony stood resolute. She dismissed her fears and focused on the graphite, only the graphite. The bolt came forth more quickly than she had intended, wrung from her by sheer urgency as the nearest goblin closed to within three running strides.
Pony staggered as if hit; the expenditure of energy was more than she could tolerate. Her knees wobbled and she instinctively ambled away, her eyes hardly open as she glanced back, with some relief, to see that the lightning had pushed the goblins back. Three of the five were down, jerking spasmodically, while the other two fought hard to hold their balance, their muscles trembling violently.
Up on the hillock, Nightbird shot one last arrow, catching a nearby goblin right through its skinny nose, then turned the bow over in one hand, whipping it like a club as Symphony pounded past another creature. That creature dispatched, he dropped the bow altogether, drawing out Tempest, the elven blade, light and strong, forged of precious silverel and crackling with energy, from both elven magic and the gemstone set in the sword's pommel. The ranger turned Symphony in line and let the great stallion run down the next goblin, and as Symphony passed, hardly stumbling, Nightbird swung out with his sword at the next. This goblin held a metal shield and had it up to block, but the gemstone in Tempest's ball hilt, a blue stone clouded with white and gray, flared with power and the fine blade smashed right through the shield, snapping the straps that fastened it to the goblin's arm, then charged on past the turning metal to crease the creature's face.
The hillock was clear, the only goblin in sight in fast flight down the grassy slope. The ranger, his blood lust high, thought to pursue, but changed his mind when he heard Pony's lightning bolt behind him, a sparking crackle and not a thunderous blast, and then heard the groans of goblins still very much alive.
He rolled backward off the saddle, landing lightly on his feet. Symphony skidded to a stop and turned about to regard him, and Nightbird couldn't help but pause and do likewise. The horse's black coat glistened with sweat, accentuating the powerful muscles. Symphony looked hard at his companion and stamped the ground, ready, eager for more battle.
The ranger looked from the horse's intelligent eyes to the turquoise set in his breast, the gift of Avelyn, the telepathic bond between Nightbird and Symphony. Elbryan used that bond now to instruct the horse.
With an agreeing snort, Symphony wheeled and charged away, and the ranger went fast for his bow, in full run on his way to the narrow trail.
He came to its lip, sliding to one knee, Hawkwing up and drawn. Only one goblin remained down now, with two starting off after Pony and two others still struggling to secure their balance. Off went the arrow, zipping between the two standing nearby and over the head of the third, to strike the lead goblin in the back. The creature went into a weird hop then, seeming to fly for several feet before falling facedown. Its running companion, fearing a similar fate, howled and dove to the ground.
Elbryan's second shot got the closest goblin in the chest, and then he was up, Tempest in hand. He came in hard, sword flashing back and forth, maneuvers designed more to put the goblin off-balance than to score a hit. The creature struggled to keep up with the flashing blade, its own crude sword ringing against Tempest only a couple of times in the ten-stroke routine. In short order the goblin was staggering again, nearly tripping on its own feet as it tried to twist and turn in tune with the darting blade. Tempest went left, then right, then right again, then Nightbird started back for the left but cut short the swing, and then came that signature lunge. Suddenly, immediately, he was simply there, fully extended, his sword tip two feet farther ahead than it had been, stabbing the goblin hard through the shoulder.
Down went the goblin's arm, its sword falling uselessly to the ground. One step brought the ranger to the side, where he chopped down hard on the head of the remaining goblin even as it struggled to stand. Then he came back in, ignoring the last goblin's cry for mercy, driving his blade through the creature's ribs and into its lungs.
The ranger glanced down the trail, to see that Pony, no unskilled fighter in her own right, had come back in, with sword this time and not gems, to finish off the goblin who had dived for cover. The woman looked up at Nightbird and nodded, then opened wide her eyes as the ranger let out a startled shout and launched himself toward her.
He went right by Pony as she turned, throwing her sword up defensively in fear that something had come in at her back. Indeed, the giant had returned, stubbornly climbing the cliff face. It had both hands and one shoulder over the lip when Nightbird met it, Tempest flashing. The ranger slashed one arm, then the other, then again and again, all the while dodging the behemoth's futile attempts to grab at him. Finally the beating opened wide the giant's defenses and its grasp on the ledge weakened, and Nightbird calmly strode ahead and kicked the creature in the face.
Down it went again, bouncing along the thirty foot descent. Stubbornly, it shook its head and rolled to its knees, intent on climbing once again.
Pony was beside Elbryan in a moment. "You might be needing this," she remarked, handing Hawkwing over.
His fourth arrow slew the giant, while Pony walked back along the trail and encampment, finishing the wounded goblins. Symphony returned during that time, the horse's rear hooves splattered with fresh goblin blood.
The three friends regrouped shortly after.
"Just another day," Pony said dryly, to which the ranger only nodded.
He noted that there was an almost dispirited edge to her tone, as though the battle, as smoothly as it had gone, had been somehow unsatisfying.