BY the end of the first day at sea, Gabriel was nearly ready to strangle Gestlin and throw his body overboard.

It was not entirely the wizard’s fault – Gabriel had been in a foul mood since they cast off, especially with how so many of the harsher-looking sailors eyed Merasiël when they thought she was unaware, not to mention just how badly he wanted to find some open space large enough to practice his sword forms which was an impossibility on a vessel this size – but if he was honest with himself, Gabriel could admit that Gestlin’s personality quirks were most definitely beginning to rub him the wrong way. This was not new, of course; in the four years since he and Merasiël had escorted the wizard out of Tredroy just in time to evade a group of would-be murderers, Gestlin had proven time and again that he really needed to be locked in a very small room and only taken out when needed. For his own safety, of course.

“I think she’s mad at me again,” the subject of his musings announced. They were both on the forecastle, at the very front of the ocean-going ship where the spray of saltwater splashed in their faces as the brig raced across the sea. Gabriel had come here hoping for a moment of peace but Gestlin had followed. Because of course he had. For a man of his years, the wizard sometimes displayed the maturity of a child.

“Did you ask her if she’s mad at you?” Gabriel leaned forward and closed his eyes. Wind ruffled his hair and beard, both growing too long; Merasiël had made a few oblique remarks to that end the other day but until now, Gabriel had not truly realized how much time had passed since he had either cut. If he asked Merasiël to do it, he might end up clean-shaven and bald, but Gestlin might decide to involve magic and Gabriel had no desire to have a beard of fire or hair wrought of tulips. Perhaps a member of the crew could manage a trim…

“Why would I bother?” Gestlin asked. “I can barely understand her half of the time when she does speak to me. She’s so …” He trailed off and Gabriel smiled.

“Willfully enigmatic?” he offered.

“Yes!” Gestlin scowled. “I’m the wizard. I’m supposed to be enigmatic and mysterious, not her.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how you can stand that.”

“I find it part of her charm,” Gabriel replied with another smile. “Have you done something foolish to upset her?” he asked. He kept his eyes closed and focused on his other senses. The smell of salt, the cry of gulls, the creaking of the old ship … it was almost meditative.

“No.” Gestlin paused for a noticeable moment. “Well, nothing moreso than normal.” At that, Gabriel almost chuckled; for all of his flaws, the wizard was at least capable of recognizing them. “It’s … she’s avoiding me. And when she can’t, she refuses to even look at me. I thought maybe that I had something on my face, like jam or dried honey, but I’ve checked – twice! – and even washed my face, but that didn’t help, so then I thought maybe it was my face specifically and I considered asking Smil-Blam to change it but I’m mostly happy with my looks so-”

“For the love of God,” Gabriel interrupted sharply, “please tell me you did not use that damned stick of yours.” He opened his eyes and gave the wizard a quick once-over – nothing appeared to have changed and he wore his usual expression of befuddled amazement, so Gabriel exhaled softly in relief.

“Well, no,” the wizard replied. “I remember what you told me about not using him on this ship.” He adopted an expression of overwrought sadness which looked ridiculous on him. “You know I could get us to Alimar with just a single spell. We could be there in the blink of an eye.” He snapped his fingers to accentuate the point.

“I also remember how we actually got to Araterre in the first place,” Gabriel retorted. The three of them suddenly appearing in the middle of Prince de Sauvons’ court had caused an absurd amount of chaos that had taken weeks to untangle; thankfully, the prince had not been present at the time or the guards might have considered them assassins and blood would have been shed. At the reminder of that miscast spell, Gestlin looked away, suddenly embarrassed.

“That wasn’t entirely my fault,” he mumbled before making a face as a spray of water struck his face. “But Merasiël …” he started again, his expression once more turning long. Gabriel held up a hand to forestall the next comments.

“I will speak with her,” he said quickly. Anything to avoid another Gestlin ramble that started on one subject, took a sharp turn into another and then devolved into a third before somehow ending up on a fourth, sometimes in mid-sentence. He liked the wizard, considered him a friend, but the man needed to learn when to shut up. Besides, seeking out Merasiël meant climbing to the crow’s nest where she liked to hide and the one time he’d tried to convince Gestlin to go there, the wizard had blanched and made some positively pathetic excuses. If he wanted peace, that was the way to accomplish it. Even better, it meant he could see Merasiël. Alone.

“Good.” Gestlin smiled brightly, then gave Gabriel a look that he no doubt thought to be sly. “She likes you better than me anyway.” It was another of the wizard’s attempts to trick him into explaining the nature of the complicated relationship between Gabriel and Merasiël. And as he had each time before, Gabriel refused to bite.

“That’s part of my charm,” he retorted as he pushed away from the railing. He paused to look Gestlin in the eye. “Do. Not. Use. That. Stick.” The wizard made another face and Gabriel once more considered trying to take the staff away from him until they reached land. Doing so could be dangerous – the damned thing sometimes seemed to have a personality of its own and was entirely too willful for a piece of wood – but letting him keep might be moreso. After a moment of consideration, Gabriel opted for the safer path and strode away.

The crew that he passed stepped out of his way, most knuckling their foreheads in a quick sign of respect that made him smirk. This was far from the first trip they’d taken on this particular ship and the last time out, there had been pirates which had been very exciting, especially when he and Merasiël took the fight to the other brig. Every surviving crewmember had either witnessed firsthand or heard of how just two people had cut down nearly half of the pirate crew, including the captain and his pet warlock … although, to be fair, Gestlin had effectively locked down the other spellcaster. And hadn’t that bastard looked especially surprised when Merasiël seemed to come out of nowhere to stab him in the eye with Angrist?

He scrambled up the netting that climbed up the mast, then paused once he reached the crow’s nest. Merasiël sat there, staring out over the sea with no expression at all on her face. If anything, she looked bored, even when her eyes flicked toward him and then back to the horizon. At the moment, she was absently balancing her mother’s sole remaining knife on one hand; as her position shifted in the wind, she automatically compensated and the blade remained nearly perfectly horizontal the entire time. The crow’s nest was not quite large enough for the both of them and, though Gabriel had no problem at all being that close to her, he could read her moods well enough to know better than to push his luck. Instead, he secured himself in the netting by looping one hand through and hooking both feet around rope. With the wind filling the sails, the netting shifted and trembled so he also anchored himself on the crow’s nest with his free hand.

“Gestlin thinks you’re mad at him again,” Gabriel said, automatically slipping into Elvish as he spoke. He knew better than to try and outwait her – if she had no desire to speak, then she would not. They’d once gone almost an entire week without saying a word; it had been torture to him but she’d not even noticed and had been at least slightly amused when he broke the silence to complain. Merasiël shifted very slightly, going so far as to actually give him a sidelong glance, and Gabriel mentally translated that to be ‘Does he now?’ He nodded. “He’s taking it very badly,” he said. “Sad looks, moping around, why, he even mentioned doing something to his face with that damned stick of his.” This time, she turned her full attention to him and Gabriel recognized her unspoken question. “No, he didn’t actually do anything yet, but you know how dangerous he is when he starts getting bored or lonely.” Merasiël’s expression went wintery cold then as she looked away and Gabriel sighed. It was exactly as he suspected. No. As he feared. Gestlin was getting noticeably older and, as an elf, Merasiël was doing what came natural by pulling away from him. “I will try to keep him distracted then,” Gabriel said. “But I do not know for how long.” She offered a very small smile – it was little more than a slight curving of her lips, but on her, that stood out – and then even reached out to touch the hand that was gripping the crow’s nest.

“We will be in Alimar for several days,” she said softly. Her words had nothing to do with the actual meaning behind them, but Gabriel nodded in understanding. He knew what she wanted to do and, despite the hollow pit in his stomach he recognized as old fears that had never been conquered, he wanted to do the same.

“What of Gestlin?” he asked. If the wizard found out their secret, things could get very complicated. He glanced down to where she still touched his hand, then looked up to meet her eyes. Merasiël shrugged, which he translated to mean ‘We’ll figure something out.’

He wondered why that filled him with dread.

THEY rode from Alimar some days later.

As usual, Gestlin’s ridiculous wagon slowed them down somewhat, but he never went anywhere without the thing and over the years, Gabriel had learned to tolerate it even if he was never quite comfortable with entering it since things simply should not be larger on the inside, no matter how magic was involved. Today, the wizard had summoned an especially strange-looking beast to pull it; the thing was a large, elephant-sized creature with great horns, a heavy coat of fur and a long, fuzzy tail. Gabriel had looked at the thing Gestlin gleefully called a ‘bantha’, exchanged long-suffering looks with Merasiël and promptly sought out a pair of sturdy horses to carry the two of them. With Gestlin, there was every chance that this bizarre beast would inexplicably vanish in a flurry of sparks or molten butterflies, and if that transpired, it would do so while they were climbing a hill. Or descending one. It was far safer to trust a normal steed.

From Alimar, they headed east, toward the peninsula that jutted out into the Erythraean Sea. The road they’d chosen meandered slowly along the coast which kept the ocean in sight pretty much the entire trip and a cold wind curling in from over the waves brought with it the distinct smell of the sea. There were a dozen tiny villages scattered along the road, most relying heavily on fishing to survive, but they did not stop at any of them despite Gestlin’s continual pleas to do so. It was a long, dull trek, made worse for Gabriel because Merasiël had abandoned them and ridden ahead to serve as scout; eventually, he followed suit when Gestlin’s continued rambling (and threats to use magic to entertain himself) reached critical levels. Getting clear was, by far, the wiser option because he knew from past experience that a bored Gestlin was a hideously dangerous one. By nightfall, though, they’d reached the outskirts of their intended destination, a small hamlet mostly hidden from view by a trick of terrain. This was Whiteoak.

Even before they rode into view, Gabriel knew something wasn’t quite right. He and Merasiël had spent several months here some years back so he knew the land rather well and could not quite put his finger on what it was that was bothering him. At a glance, he could see that Merasiël was tense as well which, rather than calming him made it worse. They topped a low hill that looked over the village and Gabriel felt his stomach knot up.

Before, there had barely been a dozen homes in this hamlet, but now, there was but half that. The great white tree that had dominated the center of the small community and given it its name was charred and blackened, barely alive and so sickly-looking now that cutting it down almost seemed like it would be a kindness. Once, there had been a small pier where the fishermen launched their small skiffs into the sea, but it too was gone; what little remained was skeletal and burnt. None of this was new damage, though. Whatever had happened here had done so a week or more ago.

Merasiël was spurring her horse forward almost the moment the hamlet came into view and Gabriel abruptly realized that he had done the same. He was vaguely aware of Gestlin’s startled question, but the words were incomprehensible. Even before he slid off his horse, Gabriel had fallen into the Void, that mental construct where he fed all emotion and pain into a flame. Control. He would require absolute control. Automatically, he adopted Leopard in High Grass even though he doubted there were enemies on all sides. This was old damage – if there were any enemies still here, that would be a surprise.

The hamlet headman saw their approach and turned toward them. An elf of indeterminate age, half of his face had been badly burned some time back and he moved with a decided limp that hinted at nearly mortal injuries only just healed. Gabriel’s hand fell to the hilt of Misericordia.

“You’ve come too late,” the old man said. “They’ve taken your son.”

FOR almost two years after walking away from their friends and leaving Tredroy behind, Gabriel and Merasiël had only each other to rely on.

They cut a lethal swath across al-Wazif and Megalos, killing slavers wherever they could find them and crippling their organizations. It was an impossible task – where one fell, three more would seem to spring up – but a worthy one, even for two people whose hands were so wet with blood. Together, they were already a terrifyingly lethal team and, as time passed and they grew to know one another even better, they become even frightening. They learned to communicate with little more than glances or wordless noises – for them, a specific kind of grunt and the lift of an eyebrow could be the equivalent of an hour long strategy meeting. The level of intimacy they fell into by accident was closer than anything Gabriel had ever envisioned being possible.

So it was only natural that they ended up becoming lovers and, as it turned out, killing slavers was not the only thing they did well together.

Once turned into twice, and then a third time, and then they were routinely sharing a bed. Those were heady times, between the constant fighting and the equally frequent loving, and Gabriel doubted he had ever been as content as he had then. In fact, he might go so far as to say he was happy.

And then, Merasiël realized she was with child.

They both panicked a little bit then, though Merasiël would later argue that she had been the voice of rational sanity even though he very clearly recalled her getting emotional. For his part, Gabriel was more than willing to admit that he was terrified – the spectre of his utter failure with Auqui loomed over him and he did not think he could be a father, not a good one anyway. What skills could he pass on? How best to murder a man? The easiest way to steal into a guarded tower to cut down the bastard within? Which grip to use on a knife when you did not wish your victim to make a noise? Those were not the sorts of things a man was supposed to pass on to his child! When Merasiël suggested the elven tradition of fosterage, now mostly forgotten in this era, he’d readily agreed. Not only was he relieved that there was a second option, one that allowed him to seek a better father for their child, but he was also at least a little encouraged that Merasiël thought highly enough of him to recommend an elven upbringing. So they began seeking out suitable foster parents.

Their search had brought them here, to the hamlet of Whiteoak, which was almost entirely elvish. Gabriel had halfway expected to be viewed with suspicion and distrust, being as human as he was, but found instead that he was accepted quite easily. Here he found a few new friends, including an expert hostler who agreed to take in Cometes who was simply too old to maintain the dangerous lifestyle that Gabriel led.

It was also here Gabriel discovered that he was no longer aging, but then, that was another story entirely.

When their son was born, they had given him over to an elven couple who could not have children of their own and then walked away. Merasiël hid it well, but Gabriel knew she sometimes wondered if they should have stayed and raised the boy themselves. He wondered the same thing from time to time, but whenever his thoughts turned in that direction, he would recall the boy who Auqui had been and then the man he became. It turned into a silent, unspoken mantra that Gabriel concentrated on: this was better for the boy.

And now, the child had been taken.

Fury raged within his belly, threatening to splinter the ice that was the Void. Gabriel wanted to draw his sword and start killing, to keep killing until the pain went away. He glanced at Merasiël, saw an identical expression on her face, and forced himself to look away so he could again concentrate on burning away his rage. There would be time later for killing. There was always time for killing.

“When?” Merasiël hissed, her voice tight and so cold that it could freeze the sun. The headman could clearly see the murder in her eyes if the hesitant half-step back he took was any indication.

“Nigh on two weeks ago,” he replied. With a gesture, he indicated the damaged tree. “They landed and started killing with sword and with fire. We lost twelve to injury alone and then they took nearly twenty with them when they sailed again.” He looked away. “Children. They took our children.”

“Two weeks.” Gabriel smiled, though he knew it was a terrible expression that did not come close to touching his eyes. In that moment, he did not care that this man had been kind to them, that he had been wounded and suffered a terrible loss. Only the rage coursing through Gabriel’s veins mattered. “You know who we are, what we are capable of, and you did not bother trying to contact us?” He trembled on the edge of violence – it would be so easy to cut this old fool down, so terribly easy. The moment passed, though, when Merasiël took his arm and pulled him away.

“There is no time for this,” she told him flatly. It took him barely a heartbeat to realize she was pulling him toward Gestlin who was already down from his wagon and talking with a pair of elves that Gabriel knew. The wizard looked torn between angry and horrified.

“Have you heard what happened?” he asked. “We must do something for these people!”

“What do you need to find a child?” Merasiël asked. “The other one – Mendel – he followed the Caithness lord to Tredroy. Can you do that?” Gestlin blinked, then momentarily looked away, his eyes swimming out of focus and he considered. He started tapping the ground with that ridiculous staff of his while simultaneously nodding.

“Yes,” he murmured. “I think so.” Gabriel exchanged looks with Merasiël – the two other elves were watching, hope in their eyes as well, and he recalled they had a young girl about the age Auqui had been when he first met the boy; ruthlessly, he shoved that thought away. There were far too many terrible things scum like those responsible for this attack would do to a girl-child that age. Gestlin shook his distraction away and locked eyes with Merasiël. “I will need something tied to the child. Blood from a parent is good, from both parents even better.”

Gabriel’s knife sang from its sheath and he had already sliced into his palm before he was fully aware of doing so. The white hot pain was barely what he deserved but he could endure. At his side, Merasiël had done the same with Angrist and Gestlin’s eyes widened the instant he realized why she had cut herself.

“Oh,” he said softly. His eyes jumped to Gabriel’s own bloody hand and the wizard’s eyes went even rounder. “Oh!” he exclaimed before swallowing and glancing away. When he looked back, his gaze was hard. “Yes,” he said in a tone of voice that Gabriel had never heard from him. “I can do this.” He gripped Smil-Blam so tightly that his knuckles were white. Strangely colored witchfire danced around the staff. “We will do this.”

Author’s Note: I thought I was done with Gabery since the character and the campaign itself was retired. For that matter, I never intended to indicate that there was anything more than deep, enduring friendship between Gabe and Merasiël but Gigermann’s character for Banestorm volume 3 changed that. He decided that Thorondil would be their child and developed an interesting backstory for him that spurred the long dormant Muses. And this was born. Because Gabe and Mera have a special set of skills that make them a nightmare for some people…