Night of Dark Intent

by the lady of shalott

* * *

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.

Robert Frost

* * *

Venger knew that Shadow Demon had entered the room, but his attention never wavered from the parchment in front of him as he carefully inscribed the necessary runes. The ewe's blood was unfortunately prone to clotting, and he had to use sorcery to clear the nib every few strokes, but there was no substitute available for this most powerful version of the domination spell. Finally, he completed the last sigil and set the quill aside, then lay the blotting paper atop the fresh manuscript. Only then did he turn his attention to the shadowy servant. "What is it?"

"Commander Terena seeks audience, Master."

"Let her enter."

The shadow demon wisped out of the room through the keyhole, and scarcely a moment later, the door opened to admit the nomad woman into whose command he had recently given his forces. "Commander," he said. "What news of Belis?"

"Taken three days gone," she said laconically.

"Indeed. I believe that makes five cities. You are ahead of schedule."

"Doesn't much matter. As it stands, I won't be to the Shining Coast in three years, much less three months." She dropped into the chair in front of his desk without waiting for permission.

He frowned slightly, but allowed the liberty. "Indeed? And why not?"

"I've had scout reports from Forwallin. It can't be taken."

"Ah." He did not let his mild amusement show on his face. He had been wondering how she would attempt to deal with the mountain citadel.

She shrugged. "There's no other pass through the Vertoli Mountains that I could fit a wagon through, much less an army. If we don't take Forwallin, we don't get to the Coast."

"So, you have come to report failure?"

"No," she said. "I've come to see if there's aught you can do about it."

He raised an eyebrow, mildly surprised. He knew that the tribes of Liharron generally avoided magic and feared it. Evidently Terena had overcome her upbringing once again. "I see. What is the problem, then? You require additional troops?"

She snorted. "Troops I have enough of, much good would they do. No, I bethought some magic might destroy the city walls."

"An interesting suggestion, but I think not. The walls of Forwallin are dwarven craft--even I would find it difficult to level them. In any case, I see no reason to ruin the fortress. Once we have taken it, its strength will serve me well."

"Once we have taken it?" she repeated, tilting her head inquiringly.

"The fortress that cannot be taken from without must be taken from within." He smiled thinly. "Ready your army for the conquest of the Shining Coast, Commander, and leave Forwallin to me."

Without another word, she rose and bowed, then left him alone once more.

Stretching out a hand, he muttered a single soft word and called up a map of the Realm, spreading it out before him. The Shining Coast lay tempting and vulnerable along the western coastline, rich with wealth and with magical power, and soon it would be his. And then, he thought, tracing his expanding borders with a finger, then, we shall see whether the power I can wrest from holding this land will finally give me the strength to claim my revenge...

* * *

Eric woke before sunrise and, only half-awake, stumbled onto the road without really thinking about it. I could've grabbed a few more hours of sleep, he thought, yawning, as he walked on. Not like I really have anywhere to rush off to, now. He straightened his shoulders and tried not to let that bother him. The thought slid into his mind that he'd probably have something to do soon enough, and his shoulders relaxed as he continued down the road.

As the first sun came up, the trail he was following arrived at a crossroads, where it joined a much larger road winding to east and west. He sat down on a large boulder and pulled off one of his boots to shake out the tiny pebbles that had worked their way in during his walk. As he was pulling it back on, a cloud of dust coming from the east caught his eye, and in a moment he heard the drumming of many hooves. He found himself on his feet in the middle of the crossroads as the riders approached, a rising wind snapping his cloak brightly behind him.

The horses slowed to a walk, then halted a short distance from the crossroads. One of the riders trotted out ahead of the rest and swung down from the saddle. "Cavalier?" he asked.

"Just Eric is fine," he said absently, studying the man. His clean-shaven face was familiar, but Eric couldn't place it for a moment. "Strongheart!" he finally realized. "Hey, I didn't recognize you without the mustache."

The knight laughed and rubbed his chin. "After all those months in Venger's prison, I wasted little time in shaving once I was finally freed!" He reached out and clasped Eric's arm in greeting. "But what brings you to this part of the Realm? And where are your companions?"

"They're gone," Eric said with difficulty, feeling as though he was making it true by saying the words. "They went back to our world."

"But..." Strongheart's eyes were puzzled.

"I couldn't go with them." he said. "It's kind of a long story, though, and you guys looked like you were in kind of a rush."

Strongheart nodded. "Indeed, we are. Venger's army has lately conquered the city of Belis, and the citadel of Forwallin lies next in his path. My order has sent the five of us," he gestured at his companions, "all who could be spared, to its aid, for should Forwallin fall, the rest of the Shining Coast lies open to Venger, and those lands are unused to war. They would be easy prey." He hesitated, then added, "If you are not committed elsewhere, my friend, your shield could add greatly to the defense of the city."

The suggestion felt right, and Eric nodded. "I'll be glad to help."

"Here, take my spare mount," Strongheart offered, turning to undo the lead rein from his own horse's saddle. "The High Lord willing, we should reach the city by eventide."

* * *

The road climbed beneath the horses' beating hooves, narrowing into a track that led them single-file through crumbling granite cliffs towards the smell of the sea. The roar of waves reached them long before the path brought them high enough to see the citadel and the crashing ocean that beat against the face of the cliff on which it stood. Black and unforgiving, the fortress looked as though it sprang from the very rock and was equally penetrable.

"Venger's planning to conquer that?" Eric said, staring at it.

"Indeed. His reach may have exceeded his grasp at last," Alister, one of the other knights, agreed. "An army of thousands could beat against those walls for a century without success."

Strongheart shaded his eyes from the glare of the setting suns and shook his head. "If another warlord sought the prize, I might agree, but I have no doubt that Venger will bring his black arts to bear in this battle. Victory will not be decided by strength of arms alone."

They spurred the horses onward. As evening began darkening the sky, they rode through the last twists of the rocky trail and came up to the city gates under the watchful eyes and drawn bows of several guardsmen.

"Who comes?" one of the men shouted down to them.

"We five are Knights of the Order of the Blade," Strongheart called up. "And this knight is our companion, one for whom I can vouch with my honor. We have come to give what aid we can to the city's defense."

The guardsman vanished behind the parapet, and a moment later one of the heavy gates swung open, and they rode forward into a wide courtyard beyond. As they dismounted, a tall yellow-haired woman came towards them, her leather armor well-worn and covered with bright metal studs. A long black cloak clasped with silver snapped behind her in the brisk wind.

"Welcome to Forwallin." She smiled as she reached them and held out a hand to Strongheart. "We were hoping you'd get here in time. Venger's army is less than three leagues distant. If you'd arrived much later, you'd have found a colder welcome." She looked all of them over with a sharp, assessing eye. "I'm Jethry, captain of the guard."

Strongheart gripped her hand. "Well met, Captain. I am Sir Strongheart. These are my sword-brethern, Sir Warren, Sir Alister, Sir Mardon, and Sir Lesset. And this is Sir Eric, who is one of Dungeon Master's pupils, of whom you may have heard."

"Uh, formerly one of his pupils," Eric corrected. When they all looked at him in surprise, he shrugged. "I kind of graduated. But I'm still more than happy to help you stop Venger."

"As are we all," Mardon said. "How can we best serve in your defense?"

"To be honest, I hope not at all," she said. "We're not planning on meeting them outside the walls, and none of you look like archers to me. But gods only know what that bastard's planning, so don't think you've come for nothing."

Strongheart nodded. "You've planned for a siege, then?"

"Oh yes. He'll get no joy of it if he's planning to starve us out. The cities of the Shining Coast know damn well that we're the last buffer between them and Venger--they've sent so many supplies we could hold out for years. They've even hired a few mages and sent them to help us." Then she smiled grimly. "Not that they're particularly powerful ones. Those wouldn't even hear an offer, or so I hear."

"No surprise there," Lesset spat in obvious disgust. "Mages. They're a cowardly lot."

"Hey, watch the generalizations there. I've known some mages who had just as many guts as any fighter," Eric said, thinking of Presto.

"I, too, have known brave wizards," Alister agreed. "But 'tis true, for the most part, they're no heros. It does not surprise me that few would accept a commission to face Venger."

"Well, we'll make do with what we have," Jethry said. "But here I'm keeping you around standing after you've had a long ride." She beckoned to a young man and women who were standing to one side of the courtyard. "Lissa, Jordan, take the horses to the stables. And if you'll all come with me, we'll get you settled for what rest you can get."

* * *

Holding the restive nightmare to its post on a flat-topped cliff, Venger observed the progress of the army as it marched forward through the pass under the sickly light of the first moon. Guards manned the walls of the city, but there had been no other response to his approaching army, save if he considered the sealed entry gates. He could sense a spell protecting the gates, and he smiled almost pityingly at the amateurish effort.

The second moon was edging into view by the time that the piebald mare that Commander Terena favored came into view. Spying her, he urged the stallion into a swooping dive that brought him to her side. The commander's horse shied away as the nightmare landed beside it, baring its teeth defensively, but Venger's steed merely snorted smoke from its nostrils, constrained by the archmage's will.

"Lord," Terena said, bringing her mount under control and nodding to him. "We've brought up all the troops we can without getting into bowshot."

"How much of the army remains below?"

She shrugged. "Near half. Doesn't make much matter--what's already in place outnumbers them twice over."

"Then let us see if numbers are enough to convince them to be reasonable," Venger said. "Send forward the heralds and issue a demand for their surrender."

She nodded and urged her horse forward through the ranks, raising a hand in some signal to her officers. He kept the nightmare back and watched as his standard moved to the front of the army and joined with a white flag of truce before approaching the gates. He paid little attention as the customary exchanges were made between the heralds and the defenders, focusing instead on the filmy clouds that were drifting in from the sea and beginning the process of binding them to his will.

With his mind so occupied, he lost track of time, and the second moon was already well above the horizon before his attention was brought abruptly back to the field of battle by the reverberating twang of bowstrings. Roused by his magic, a strong wind had blown in from the sea, increasing the range of the city's archers, and screams of pain rose as the long black-feathered shafts hailing from the city's walls stabbed into the first few ranks of the army. The rest of the troops shifted uneasily, horses and soldiers alike disturbed by the cries. He frowned and looked around for Terena, then saw her shouting orders to the milling front ranks, who finally shifted themselves around and brought their shields into an overlapping formation.

The commander reined her horse around and trotted back to his side once the thin defense was established, muttering oaths about the wind. He smiled thinly and didn't bother informing her that the wind she cursed would be the source of their victory. "Well?"

"They're not surrendering," she said. "Nor would I, if I were in that place." She jerked her thumb towards the citadel. "There's naught I can do more now. If the army moves forward another yard, we'll be losing squads, not soldiers."

"Then I believe it is my turn, Commander. See to it that none disturb me." He scanned the ramparts, looking for any further signs of casting or magical power that might disrupt his own spell, and nearly laughed when he saw a shimmer of magical power spread above the city walls. "How amusing," he said aloud, almost tempted to destroy the magical shield just in order to make it clear to the mage behind it how futile his attempts were.

Dismissing the idea as a waste of time, he continued his mental sweep, already running over the spell in his mind, when a shock of recognition disrupted his thoughts. I cannot have been mistaken, he thought, narrowing his focus, trying to relocate the familiar source of magical energy. The weapons of power left the Realm. I felt their departure!

But a sudden hope he did not permit himself to name sent him more deeply into the searching spell, probing at the edges of the magical item's aura. The shield. And only the shield, he finally realized. Disappointment, sharper for the unexpected hope, sliced through him, and he raised his arms to the skies with the strength of fresh bitterness. If I had not already laid every curse the Realm has heard on the old one, I would curse him yet again for sending her to me. He flung himself into the power, welcoming the near-pain of submerging himself in its dark, seductive depths, and stretched his will out over the ocean.

The wispy grey fingers of the clouds began to thicken as they drifted closer, borne on the sea wind. Obedient to his will, they halted above the citadel. Under the lash of his fury, they began to roil into black, spreading a cancerous darkness that blotted out the stars and cast a shadow deeper than nature had ever intended over the entire fortress.

On the city walls, the music of the bowstrings faltered and stopped.

Breathing hard, he opened his eyes and observed the edges of the darkness with a judicious eye, smiling thinly in satisfaction. "Excellent."

Terena looked at the dark veil hanging over the citadel, then transferred her gaze to him. "Lord, when is it going to begin?" she asked.

"It already has, Commander," he told her. "Have your troops make camp. It should not take long to break them."

* * *

Waiting in the citadel's courtyard for news of the battle, they learned as soon as anyone of Venger's spellcasting. As the clouds began their swirling motion above their heads, Alister touched his fist to his shoulder in a gesture Eric guessed was pretty much like making the sign of the cross. While the darkness thickened, he noticed the people around him beginning to look pale and sick, hands trembling even as they curled around swordhilts. Up on the walls, one by one the archers stopped firing, and he could feel a strange pressure against his mind, like the brush of butterfly wings. A few yards away, one man suddenly dropped his sword and crumpled to his knees, moaning faintly.

"What's going on?" he asked Strongheart. The other knight didn't respond, his face oddly tight. A muscle jerked wildly in his jaw. Eric reached out and gripped his shoulder. "Strongheart? You okay?"

Drawing a shuddering breath, the knight seemed to look at him again. "You do not feel it--the fear?"

Eric shook his head, but he understood now. "Crap. Look, it's Venger's magic," he said urgently. "It's not real."

"Yes," Strongheart said haltingly. Then more easily, "Yes, I know, my friend." He straightened a little and reached out to Mardon, who was standing next to him.

Around them, most of the citadel's inhabitants were starting to revive a little from the first shock of the spell's attack, although they still moved shakily and leaned on each other. But Eric could read the continuing effects of the spell in all the ashen faces whose only color came from the yellow-red torches. "I'm going to find Captain Jethry," he told Strongheart, the urge sudden and undeniable, and he didn't wait for the knight to respond before shouldering his way through the courtyard and up onto the wall.

None of the guards tried to stop him, even though he obviously had no place on the wall. Most of the archers looked like they were in worse shape than those below, and Eric found himself stopping every few yards along the wall to try and help the ones who were huddled over, clutched in the grip of a terror their panicked eyes couldn't even see. He didn't really know whether he was doing anything besides offering a comforting word or touch, but by the time he found the captain on one of the gate towers, he was hot and sweating, panting as though he'd been in a race, even though the wind was icy.

Jethry wasn't as badly off as most, although a light sheen of sweat stood out on her brow despite the cold pallor of her skin. Still, her voice was level when she saw him and spoke. "I hope to all the gods that your shield can do something about this, because I'm afraid our mages aren't having any luck." Eric looked past her to see two robed men sitting slumped against the wall of the battlements, their faces slack and exhausted. "If we don't bring down this spell, we're as good as lost." Her wave took in the huddled groups of people on the walls and below, in the courtyard.

"I'm sorry," he said slowly. "But the Shield of Power can't stop a spell like this. There's nothing to--to stop, if you get what I mean."

She sighed and closed her eyes, suddenly looking old despite her unlined face. "There's no hope then. And if I don't surrender before they take us, they'll slaughter everyone of fighting age, like they did at Corduron."

His stomach clenching, Eric looked out over the bowed-down figures in the courtyard and closed his eyes. I could really use a bright idea right around now, he thought, and felt a sudden sensation like the touch of a hand on his cheek. It warmed him through, and he found himself remembering the siege of Mirunor, and his reluctance to leave. If I'd stayed--if we'd fought instead of surrendering--could we have won there, too? He shook off the sudden regret and took a deep breath. "If you surrender, you'll just end up under a darkness as horrible as this one, except it'll kill you slow instead of quick."

She opened her eyes and looked at him. "What other choice is there? We won't even be able to hold the gates against a battering ram after a day or so of this."

"There's always another choice," he said, sure that it was true, but still struggling to find one to offer her. He turned and looked out on the battlefield, and only then, in the first faint gleam of dawn, noticed that the dark cloud ended almost exactly at the walls. "Look--the spell doesn't cover the battlefield. He probably didn't want his own troops to be affected."

She laughed shortly. "What difference does it make? They outnumber us by at least two to one, and he's got more reserves back on the trail. You don't really suggest we go out there and fight them hand to hand?"

"Yeah, actually, that's exactly what I suggest," Eric said, feeling the rightness of the idea.

"Are you insane?" She stared at him, then waved out at the enemy. "Even if we had the same number of troops, they're in an ideal defensive position. All we can do is charge them, and then we'd be slaughtered. Unless you think your shield can protect an entire army!"

"There's a shield that can," Eric said steadily, the strength to face her scorn flowing into him. "Faith."

"Faith!" She snorted. "What are you now, a cleric?"

He took a deep breath and looked her squarely in the eye. "Actually, I'm a paladin."

"The hell you...are..." Her voice trailed off into wonder.

Eric noticed the faint tingling across his skin first, and then realized that a light shone all around him. Hey, nice special effects there. "Hell's kind of the opposite direction," he said, and couldn't help grinning at her startled expression. "Captain, I know this idea may sound crazy, but I wasn't sent here to help you all die, and I definitely wasn't sent here to watch you surrender without a fight."

Hope crept back into her face, and her eyes shone with more than his reflected light as she straightened. "Who am I to argue with the High Lord?" she said, a smile blazing on her face. "We will fight, sir paladin, and if we die, we'll at least die free and under the High Lord's sun."

* * *

"How foolhardy," Venger commented, watching the rows of soldiers march out of the city under the cover of the archers. "They are mounting an assault."

Terena's eyes tracked the enemies as they took up positions. "Like to be they're planning a charge," she said. "I'll have the orc pikemen stand ready in the front. If they oblige, they'll break themselves apart on the pikes and we'll never have to go in bowshot." She rose up in her stirrups to signal the order.

Suspicious of the move, Venger tilted his head to concentrate, but he could feel no further attempts by the city's mages to break the spell of darkness or to cast any other spells. "There is no maneuver they can use against us?" he demanded, still uneasy for no reason he could name.

She shrugged as she settled back down in the saddle. "None that'll work, Lord. Might be they're looking for a quick death with honor--this is a fortress, not a fat city."

"Mm." Venger scowled. "I have found that few men are quite so eager to go seeking death, with honor or without." He fell silent, watching the shifting troops.

The nightmare snorted and pawed the ground, smoke curling from its nostrils, its glowing eyes fixed on the enemy ranks. A horn call sounded, and the Forwallin army began to move across the field--slowly at first, then faster and faster until the ground began to tremble faintly with their pounding steps. The orcs' jeering laughter could be heard even behind the lines, and the pikes were glittering claws already reaching for the approaching hearts. His eyes narrowed in anticipation of the first collision as he idly wondered whether the Forwallin soldiers would truly hurl themselves onto the sharp blades.

Pale sunlight was streaking the battlefield by then, so he first thought the flash of light was only a reflection from a blade or helmet. But the white dazzle didn't fade, instead leaping from blade to blade along the Forwallin front line, then spilling over and racing ahead of the soldiers. The radiance touched the pike blades and rippled down the hafts, and suddenly the orcs were screaming and dropping their weapons, turning to run.

Grinding his teeth, Venger watched as the ordered ranks of his army dissolved before the shining froth of white light. He raised his hand and sent a blast of fire into the light, but his magic passed right through it with no visible effect, and he couldn't sense any magical source for the light spell. Baffled with rage, he ignored Commander Terena's shouted questions and forced the nightmare up and into the air, then swept down towards the Forwallin ranks. He hurled magic bolts down into the soldiers indiscriminately, his anger soothed by the cries of agony rising from his enemies.

In his fury, he paid little attention to where he was directing his bolts, and it took him entirely by surprise when one of them was suddenly deflected right back at him. The explosion of fire against the nightmare's belly hurled him from its back, and he crashed to the ground in an undignified heap, pain flaring through his legs and back momentarily before a quickly-uttered healing spell wrapped its soothing strength over him.

Cursing, he pulled himself up to one knee, then halted as a gleaming blade suddenly appeared in front of his eyes, the point resting in the hollow of his throat. He glared up at the bearer, a magic spell already forming in his mind, but surprise disrupted his casting as he recognized the young Cavalier. "Fool," he snapped, starting to rise. "You dare--" He stopped as the sword pressed warningly against his throat.

"If you feel like living, shut down your spell," Eric said. "And then take your army and hit the road."

Venger laughed coldly. "So, now you think to defeat me alone. Do you truly believe you can cause me more than a few moments of discomfort with simple steel, Cavalier? Lower your blade, and I may consider sparing your life."

"Actually, you've got two things wrong there," the young man said. "For one thing, I'm not alone. The High Lord is with me. And for another--I'm not a cavalier anymore." And suddenly he was alight, limned by the same radiance that had chased the orcs from the field.

Averting his eyes, Venger clenched his hands in incoherent rage as he finally recognized the source of the painfully white brilliance. "A paladin." He spat the word out like a curse.

"Got it in one," Eric nodded, the sword never wavering. "Well? Are you going to take your chances, or drop the spell?"

The idea of yielding was intolerable, but he had no idea whether he could survive a mortal wound from a paladin's hands--and the idea of death was even more intolerable. He muttered a curse and swallowed his fury. "Move your sword," he said. "I will recall my spell." As Eric put up his sword, Venger rose slowly and raised his hands to call back the energies of the spell.

The veil of darkness gradually begain to fragment and crack, thin trailers of shadow racing back to his hands and dissolving around him. He toyed briefly with the idea of smothering the paladin in the black remnants of the spell, but he had to discard the thought when he saw that the strands withered if they came anywhere near the halo of light that still surrounded Eric. Dimly, he heard cheers spreading across the battlefield as the spell unraveled and bright sunlight blazed through the tatters.

Finally, he had undone the entire spell, and no trace of darkness was left in the sky above the citadel. The effort left him shaky, but he would no more have shown the weakness than he would have thrown himself on the glittering sword. He turned to the knight and regarded him coldly. "Are you satisfied?"

A group of warriors from the city's forces broke away from the continuing battle and came towards them, and Eric nodded to them before turning back. "I will be, when you take your army and leave," he said.

"What?" A woman in the uniform of the citadel's guard took a step forward, the sword in her hand held ready. "You must be joking. Let him leave? After all he's done, to Forwallin and the other cities? We should kill him now, before he can cause any more harm!"

"You are welcome to try, fool," Venger said contemptuously, raising one hand in a clear threat, readying his magical powers despite his weariness.

But Eric shook his head. "No," he said quietly. "Sorry Captain, but you can't kill him--and I promised not to, as long as he yields."

Venger swept them all with a sneer. When they made no further move to stop him, he summoned his steed down to him with a casual gesture and swung himself onto its back with an effortlessness that took nearly all his remaining strength to feign.

"I will not forget this, Paladin," he said icily, glaring down at the dark-haired young man.

"Good," Eric said, looking up at him with somber eyes that seemed older than his years. "Don't."

His face tight with rage, Venger wheeled his nightmare around and spurred it into the sky for the short flight over to his own troops. Terena and her officers were trying to force some semblance of order onto the rout that his army had dissolved into, and as he brought the stallion down beside her, she was still shouting.

"I need to give the order to retreat," she said hoarsely as soon as she caught sight of him. "We're being slaughtered, and there's no controlling those damned pig-spawned orcs."

"Very well," he said through clenched teeth. He furled the wings of his cloak around him and watched, brooding, while Terena gradually marshalled the troops into formation for the retreat. The nightmare paced alongside her horse, leading the way as the army slowly began to flow back out through the mountain pass, harried all the while from behind by the Forwallin troops. The silver light did not reach past the first turn in the pass, however, and the citadel's forces halted there, although their jeers and taunts followed for a longer distance.

The suns were setting as the army straggled off the mountain trail. After one look at his face, Commander Terena evidently decided not to bother him with details and ordered the troops to halt for the night herself. He remained mounted on the edge of camp, watching the tents going up with a fraction of his attention, his mind turned inward to dark thoughts and anger.

Terena finally rode back up to him as the watchfires were being lit. "Your tent is ready, Lord."

Roused from his brooding, he looked at her with hooded eyes. "As it seems we will have to forgo the conquest of the Shining Coast, Commander, I believe this army will require a new goal."

She straightened in the saddle, her dark eyes gleaming. "Indeed, Lord."

"Tell me, what do you know of Khadish?"

The very corners of her mouth turned up slightly. "The tribes of Khadish are numerous. Good fighters."

He smiled in return, slow and malicious. "Indeed. Can you take it?"

Her eyes glittered. "When do we march?"

* * *

Friendly laughter burst out in the hall as the half-drunk young man attempting to juggle lost his balance and managed to drop two of his balls onto his own head and send the third splashing into a bowl of soup on the long table nearest the dais. He grinned apologetically at the half-heartedly scolding woman he had splashed and gave a swaying bow before sitting back down. A trio of musicians took his place on the dais, and a few couples got up from the tables and started an impromptu dance between the aisles to their tune. After watching them for a few moments, Eric put down his glass of wine and pushed his chair back from the table.

"Where are you going?" Jethry asked, catching his arm with a smile. "The celebration is only beginning."

"Only beginning? That was the third course!" he said, grinning back at her. "If I don't move around a little now, I don't think I'm ever going to get up. I haven't been this stuffed in months."

She laughed. "We were ready for a months'-long siege! We've got to do something with all the extra food."

"Well, I think you've gotten about as much of it into me as you're going to," Eric said.

"Then you're ready to start dancing," she suggested.

"Why don't you drag Strongheart out on the floor instead." Eric grinned at Strongheart as the knight looked around at the mention of his name. "He probably won't step on your feet, which is more than I can say for me. I'm just going to step out and get some fresh air."

"Very well, then," Jethry said, standing up and holding out a hand to Strongheart. "Shall we?"

"With all my heart," the knight said, rising and giving her a bow.

Smiling, Eric watched them join the other dancers, then headed for the door. The noise of celebration followed him out into the night, light and sound spilling after him briefly until the door swung shut behind him. His breath frosted in the wintry air and trailed in front of him, leading him onward through the empty snow-dusted streets as he wandered away from the council hall. His aimless steps brought him past the front gates of the city, and he was surprised to find them standing open.

He walked towards them, ready to call out to any of the guards that might be around, when a soft whicker made him pause. A soft clatter and jingle of harness, and part of the night beyond the city wall separated itself out and stepped into the circle of torchlight beneath the gates. Pitch black, with one white stocking on its back left leg, the tall horse pawed the ground and looked back at him with dark, liquid eyes.

Eric stepped forward without thinking to pat the sleek neck, then glanced over the horse's gear and blinked in surprise. His own shield was hung on the high-cantilevered saddle, the griffin's head unmistakeable, but an unfamiliar sword, sheathed in a red and gold scabbard that matched his shield, also hung from the pommel, along with a heavy red wool cloak. He paused, hand resting on the smooth neck, then reached up and took down the cloak, swinging it over his shoulders. Just the right size, its warm weight settled over him, a thick layer of protection from the biting cold of the winter wind. He checked the saddle fastenings, finding that they were all secure, then gripped the sides and swung himself up. The stirrups were already at the right length for his legs, and the horse stood quietly while he settled himself in and picked up the reins.

A sudden burst of music reached him, and he glanced back to see the door to the council hall standing open, a golden beacon against the night, and the strains of a song rising from the interior. He smiled as he recognized the hymn from the High Temple. But he didn't need to hear the music to feel the greater song in his own heart, calling him onwards with a promise of strength beyond fear. Without regret, he sent the warhorse out through the gates and into the night, riding with his own light around him.

*** The End ***