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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 heavil y, 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.