he shouts and screams of angry and dying men vied unsuccessfully with the rainstorm as Vrayl ran towards the elves' cave, Va r draped limply over his shoulders. But the drumming rain and occasional rumble could not hide the tearing pain and release as the elf behind him died. Gritting his teeth, Vrayl increased his speed, cursing the humans in his thoughts, and trying not to dwell on the grief in his heart. It must be for later--if there was to be a later. His father had died to give the rest a chance to escape the humans' trap--his sacrifice must not be in vain. It must not--they could not afford to lose more lives!
The crash of the waterfall grew loud as Vrayl skirted the woods towards the base of the tall cliffs, following the other wraith-like figures. His lungswere glad for the respite as he was forced to slow down through the thick bushes that guarded the approach to their rock-shaped home. Stumbling, he barely managed to keep to his feet as he entered the cave, then did go to his knees. But despite the dizzy exhaustion from the long, hard run, Vrayl managed to not jar the unconscious elf as he slid him to to the floor, one hand carefully cradling the blood-soaked skull.
**Brother! How is he--please, tell me he'll be all right!**
**I told you to stay on the upper level!** With a fierce effort, the dark-haired elf forced himself to his feet, then slapped his hands against the wall. But he had no time to be annoyed at his young sister for her disobedience. **Club got past his guard, don't know how. Take care of him--and call Morthrek--we have to get this entrance sealed!**
He didn't wait for his sister's response, trying to center his awareness, to focus on the ancient, living rock. As his father had taught him, as others had, now gone except in spirit and in memory. He must feel the rock, be part of it, call it to his will ...
**Vrayl, I can't come. Elzrian's dying--he needs you, you've got to come up here now!**
Vrayl jerked backwards, shock shattering his concentration. **Elzrian can't be dying!** he protested. Not his best friend! **We need him, we've lost too many already!! Liria must --**
**Elzrian won't let her touch him! He says he's too badly hurt, she must save Tinar and Var! Please, Vrayl--you must come now!**
Fists slammed into unyielding rock as Vrayl struggled not to give vent to his anguish. Not Elzrian!! Not the best and brightest of the elves born on this world!! Not the only elf Var had consented to teach in uncounted years! **I can't come!!** Vrayl returned, reaching for his friend as well as his friend's father. **I can still hear the humans!! We didn't have time to hide our trail, they're tracking us, I've got to get the entrance sealed!!**
There was no reply, and Vrayl tried to return to his task. But the tears and pain would not leave him. He could not free himself of his knowledge, his agony, his exhaustion ...
**I am sending father to you, Vrayl.** The cool, gentle touch held no hint of whatever Elzrian was physically suffering. **The group must come first ... soul-brother, do you remember the experiment we tried, seven winters back? Locking our minds together, and merging our powers?**
He would never forget that day. **Yes ... but ...**
**Lock-send with me. I'll link you and father--the three of us, together, will have enough strength to shape the rock.**
**But, Elzrian, you're dying --!-- you can't --**
**I can. I've locked the pain away--it won't touch you.** There was a slight pause. **Please.**
He knew he lacked the strength and concentration, to shape the rock alone. And he had never been able to refuse his friend. Sagging against the rock, Vrayl opened his mind fully, reaching for the deep contact with Elzrian. Within moments, he was utterly aware of the two other elves, the one blazing brightly and almost without sense of body or form, while the other was dark and bitter-sullen. Morthrek resisted the full contact, then, reluctantly, gave in.
Elzrian held the contact, with light sureness. Vrayl felt his senses expanding. The rock next to his body and hands was full of chaotic, crystalline beauty, the visible part of the world's bones. He could sense the life-forces behind him and outside, and the others whom lingered, their spirits drawn to help their descendants. It was simple to place his hands upon the rock, to be part of it, to whisper the thought of a new form to it. It flowed to his command, and he felt joy, and aliveness, to call on the magic that was his heritage. The rock moved to his combined will, creating a wall that no human weapon could breach, leaving thin slits for air. And when the rock had stilled, it pleased him to think that it would stay thus, unless touched again, for years uncounted, resisting the changes of the world. It might be only a single step, to keep the humans away, but it was done, and well done.
Vrayl sensed his body slumping to the ground. But only a moment, as Elzrian caught and held him close. **Stay with me, Vrayl. My body is nearly dead, but I must share this with you. It is a vision, one I have seen many times, when the others were with me. It is a place. Find it, Vrayl--for the sake of all of us--find it!** Images flowed. Mountains, tall, capped with snow. A valley. Large. Wide. Deep. A lake, fed with many streams, and drained by a waterfall. A valley of forests and meadows, rich in life. And more. **It will take magic, and hold it, then give it back again. Our kind can live there, and grow strong. Find it, Vrayl! For all of us ...**
**But where? How do I find it?**
Elzrian's thoughts were faint. **Towards sun-goes-up. We--I--will guide you. We promise.** His touch faded. Vrayl felt alarm, and struggled to stay in touch.
I am here. I will always be here. But the words were without touch, and Vrayl knew, as he sank into his own darkness, that the body--the thing that gave Elzrian his form and tactile contact--was dead.
oth hands clasped about Var's unresponsive one, Haliil watched Liria as she worked, trying not to sob. Why did living have to hurt so much? Her father gone, willing his own destruction, preferring that, to living with his agonized decision to slaughter the humans by bringing down the cave roof. And Solarn, who had been like a mother to her! And now Elzrian--why did Elzrian have to die?! He'd been her lovemate, before she had found herself falling through Var's gaze. He'd been everyone's favorite. No one could refuse his laughing smile, even Var. It wasn't fair--it wasn't fair!!
Liria sat back, trembling, after what seemed a very long time. Staring at the fire-haired Healer, the young elf dreaded asking her question. For Liria had still been working on Tinar, when she and Therin had brought the Firstcomer's limp body up the shaped stairs. And Liria had not even hesitated, abandoning the cruelly-tortured youth to come to Var. Maybe, her reaction was just because she and Var were now the only Firstcomers left, and former lovemates. But Haliil knew that wouldn't be the reason.
Var was alive: she knew that, within every nerve of her pregnant body. But Liria could not always save an injured elf. Haliil swallowed. "Healer? Will he--will he be ... all right?"
The green eyes opened, but they were glazed, un-seeing, in the white face that was streaked with tears and sweat. "All right?" muttered the elf. "How can he be 'all right,' how can any of us be 'all right,' trapped in a single time and place? Trapped, betrayed ... on a world that rejects us ... that steals our powers ... or twists them ... we ... we who roamed the stars and time ... " Abruptly, Liria shook her head, then leaned forward, pressing the palms of her hands against her temples.
"I'm sorry." Breathing deeply, she looked at Haliil. "I've healed the skull and the brain as best I can, and set in his mind how to finish the healing. But his body may be paralyzed for a while." She closed her eyes again, and Haliil sensed the other's exhaustion and frustration. "I must help Tinar--keep Var warm, and stay with him; he should rouse soon." Liria stood up, then swayed. Gasping, Haliil lunged upwards, straddling her Recognized, catching the taller elf before she could fall. The elder's exhaustion and pain flowed through the contact, causing the young elf to stiffen, breath catching as she struggled not to cry out. Then she nearly cried out again, as her baby chose that moment to move for the first time, as if in protest. Her legs trembled, straining to keep them both upright--they must not fall! She was standing over Var, her Recognized, if she fell, she might hurt him, and in that one moment of contact, eyes-meet-eyes and soul-meet-soul, he had become the most important elf in existence to her.
"Liria!!" Someone blurred past Haliil's vision, and then the weight came off her arms. "Let go, sister--I have her."
Relieved, Haliil eased away, glad to sit down again. She winced, and touched her stomach. It didn't hurt, but it was so disconcerting, and why did she have to start now!
A strangled sound that was neither laugh nor sigh drew her attention. Clothes and hands smeared with her son's blood, blond curls plastered with rain and snarled with twigs and leaves, Diirla's eyes held a bemused understanding and comprehension that rode above the night's pain and grief. A smile attempted to make itself known. "She moved, didn't she?"
Haliil could only nod. The smile escaped, and eyes as green as a Healer mother's glinted with a moment of mischievous laughter. "She's starting early. That one's going to be more of a handful, than you three scamps put together ever were!" The young elf smiled back, somewhat shyly, at that reminder of the scrapes she, Tinar and Elzrian had gotten into, as children. And the atmosphere eased a trifle, at the reminder of the new life coming.
The bang of wood against stone, echoing from the chamber below, brought every thought to a frightened standstill. Haliil gasped, both hands going to her belly, as if to protect the life within. Humans! She looked at her brother, wondering what he was going to do.
He glanced at her, over Liria's shoulder, skin drawn over sharp cheekbones, despair and determination mingled together in his look. **We're leaving,** he sent, a broadcast meant for all. **Gather all the food and waterskins we can carry, and our warmest furs. Therin, go on top and watch for humans--the rest of you, get started--we've got to leave before dawn, and before the humans think to search for our bolt-hole!**
Haliil stared at her older brother, dismayed, almost terrified. Leave? This was home, she had grown up here! And Var, he wasn't conscious, how would they take him along! But, if Vrayl said they must leave, then they would.
But if Haliil could not protest, another could. Wide-eyed, she watched as the Firstcomer--who had seemed so utterly exhausted--tear herself away from her lifemate, and confront him. "We can't leave!" exclaimed Liria. "Var is still unconscious and Tinar is badly injured! They could die if they are moved! We should shape the top entrance closed, and wait for the humans to leave!"
**I - am - not - going - to - die!** Every head turned to watch as Tinar struggled to his feet, his face as white as his hair, where it wasn't bruised or burned. He swayed, then steadied himself, shaking off Aerva's support. **Elzrian included me in his sending, Vrayl.** He stared at the Healer, but included everyone in his thought. **We don't have a choice, Liria--I am with Vrayl. Those humans won't grow tired and leave--not before we starve. We have to leave, now."
"But how can we travel, with two injured elves, and one pregnant?!" she protested. "And where will we go? How do you know, we can't out-wait humans--they are so short-lived and short-minded!"
"There was a man from the N'kash," said Aerva bitterly. She glanced at Vrayl. "The one with the wolf-fangs about his neck and the blue tattoos, the one who got through Elzrian's guard." He nodded. "He was boasting after we were caught ... about his intended return to his tribe, how he had succeeded. Apparently, the N'kash have been sending out men to hunt for us, ever since we left their area two generations ago. He persuaded the Korxus and their neighbors that we were evil, that we had caused the great fire three years ago. He convinced them that we had to be destroyed ..."
Liria paled. Before she could protest further, Vrayl turned her around and met her eyes, obviously sending, on a deep and private level. Haliil turned her eyes away, and rose, not wanting to be envious of her brother. Vrayl had Recognized a Firstcomer, and discovered a love which was returned.
But Var refused to be more than the sire of her daughter.
s the healthy members of his small tribe--now numbering only ten--set to work packing, Vrayl drew Liria to him. She came willingly, seeking the deeper places of his mind. He opened himself, and felt the familiar awe, that she, who was so different from himself, could truly and deeply love him. He felt her touch again on Elzrian's vision. She sought the core of his strength: the fierce will to live, the determination to find a way to live with the world that was not their own. And, as she sought, he sought her, sensing her concerns over Tinar and Var, then past that, to the ancient, ageless center. A center that had known freedom from time and space and form. A being that had been more, seen more, done more than he could imagine or comprehend. He sensed the terrible scar that had been once more torn open--memories of a night of betrayal and brutal slaughter, of a oneness and wholeness shattered, never to be rewoven. She was far more than he could ever be. But on the world of two moons, the world of his birth, he stood equal with her, coming into existence through the acceptance of a pattern his ancestors had once known, had forgotten, and then, here, remembered.
A sending, half-plea, half-demand, searched for Liria. Pulling herself away, she went to her former lovemate's side. Vrayl glanced around, making sure everyone was busy, then walked over and knelt by Var's other side, after shaking his head at Haliil, to keep her away.
Var gave him a fierce glare, one side of his face twisted in pain. But, whatever the physical impact of his injury, it had no effect on his sending. **You.** Hatred and scorn rippled through his thoughts. **Are you satisfied now, boy? Three dead, including Daleur? We would have hardly had more dead, if we had done nothing.**
**Five would have died under the humans' torture,** retorted Vrayl. **And Tinar and Aerva might have more, together, besides the one she carries.**
**And if you attempt to follow Elzrian's foolish vision, you will kill us all--better to slit our throats, and have done with it.**
**It is not foolish, Var,** protested Liria, leaning over him. **Elzrian saw more clearly than any other born on this world. His vision is not foolish! There will be risks, yes--but when have we not been in danger, here? And I would travel far, to find a place that did not wholly reject our powers, did not leave us with so little!**
The Firstcomer's reply was for Liria alone. But her reactions were visible, and, with a sudden cry of hurt and denial, she leapt up and fled. Her pain was Vrayl's, and without thinking, he reacted. **Leave her alone!** Lashing out with his mind, he moved physically as well, grabbing Var's leather tunic, and pulling him up. **Don't you dare hurt her!**
Eyes of blue fire met his--eyes that filled with fury at being so addressed. The ancient, ageless mind behind them gathered its strength ... and attacked.
If Vrayl did not scream, as power sent agony into every part of his being, it was because he could not. He barely felt himself being flung through the air, but the bruising slam against the wall knocked his breath away, and nearly his thoughts. **You dare tell me what I may or may not do, boy?!** sent the raging Firstcomer. **You dare think you know how to lead elves, to keep them alive?! Because of you, three are dead! You have brought the humans to our cave, you have made it necessary to leave this place! If you are our leader, then stop me from throwing you against the wall like the piece of meat you are!**
Vrayl forced his eyes open, and struggled to keep his thoughts clear against the sent agony. "It takes more than magic to be a leader, Var. Magic did not save you Firstcomers from betrayal, or from the primitive clubs of humans. Magic alone does not keep us alive!" He fought to breathe, against the increasing pressure, struggling to meet the hating, sapphire eyes. "I have done the best I can, for all of us! If it is not enough, then let everyone say it, and chose another! You led us for a long time, Var, and you led us well. But, when Maelain and the others were killed, you changed! And when I challenged your plan to wage war on the humans, it was I the others stood behind, not you! I don't have the power to make you stop this--you think I don't know you could kill me with your magic?! But all your power does not change what is! I am the leader, and they have not said me nay!"
"Let him go, Father."
Var whipped his head about, not losing his hold. Through dimming vision, Vrayl saw Diirla walk into view. "Stay out of this, daughter," warned the Firstcomer. "This is no concern of yours!"
"It is all our concern. Vrayl is one of us, as are you. Would you have us disbelieve, all that our parents taught us? Let him go."
Silence. Var glared at his first daughter, born not of Recognition, but of the love and desire of a Healer. Vrayl sensed the wavering within the Firstcomer, the conflict between wounded pride and rage, and a different part of that pride, and conscience. But which would win? The elves' rejection of him, years back, had struck deeply, and never healed. At that moment, Var hated him. And, dismayed, Vrayl realized that he himself was partially at fault. A leader should know the limitations of those around him ...
**Var.** The elf whipped his head back to glower at his victim. Vrayl met his eyes, then sent his thoughts, with all the honest regret he could project. **I apologize, for attacking you. I had no right, to react in that manner.**
Surprise flickered in the blue depths. Var hesitated, then lowered Vrayl gently to the floor, though keeping him pinned to the wall. **You, apologize? Do you learn proper humility at last, youngling?**
**I know that your feelings for Liria must run far deeper than mine, and in ways I can't understand.** Vrayl refused to let himself be ruffled by the taunt. **I know that you would never willingly hurt Liria.**
**No.** Var hesitated a moment longer, his anger fading, a faint flicker of triumph emerging. Vrayl noticed it, but tried to hide his own reaction, willing to let Var feel that he had won something. A self-satisfied Var would surely be easier to get along with than one simmering with injured pride. **Liria and I are different from you--remember that, boy, or I will remind you.** He turned away, drifting just above the floor, releasing Vrayl.
Ribs aching and legs trembling, Vrayl leaned against the wall. Faintly, he heard the cry of "Father!" then running feet. Small hands touched him, a childish voice crying fearfully. "Father, are you all right?!"
Forcing a smile, Vrayl went carefully to one knee, and embraced his six-year-old daughter. Maka returned his touch with every ounce of strength in her thin arms, starting to sob. Holding her close, he stroked her hair, knowing that Var's attack was only the latest event in a day of terror for his child. He wished he could give her the time for mourning, but the humans were still banging at the entrance. And dawn was not that far away ...
**I will be fine,** he sent, with all the soothing emotion that he could. **I am not going to leave you. We are all going to leave together, to find a new place that will be good for us.** Drawing her away, he placed his hands about her face. **But we have to leave soon. I know it is very hard ... but can you go back to what Diirla was having you do, before? It is very important.**
She stared back at him. **Var won't hurt you again?**
**No.** He wiped her cheeks. **Now, go do what Diirla says.**
Eyes wide and solemn, she hesitated, then nodded and trotted over to Diirla, who had resumed her packing. Standing up, Vrayl cast his glance around. Everyone was busy--even Tinar was packing a bag, one-handed--but every line of their bodies and every sense of their minds spoke of unease. Var's bitterness was well known--few had escaped his sarcasm or glare, over the years. But he had never used more than words or his ice-hard gaze before ... Vrayl turned away, a sudden chill shivering up his spine. Var had come close to madness this night, as his proposal to war against the humans had been mad, years before. And they had not even begun their journey yet, a journey that would be harder than the last time, perhaps harder than the long journeying the Firstcomers had made, after they left the area around the Palace. If he was wrong, to follow Elzrian's vision ...
he last light in the shaped candle-bowl flickered, near to dying. Blinking back the tears that wanted to come, that tightened her throat, Haliil took a last look around. Everyone else, except one, had started towards the cliff-top. She had been happy here, mostly. Now, Elzrian's body lay in shadowed corner, fur-covered, the shapers unable to expend the energy or time to entomb it in rock. And she must say good-bye.
An impatient sending touched her. Nearby, Var grumbled something under his breath. She looked at him. Sensing her gaze, he turned his head, and tried to glower. "Your brother wants you up there--hadn't you better go?"
She looked down, then took hold of the two spears leaning against the wall. Walking over to Var, she presented the heavier and taller one to him. **The sending was for us both,** she told him.
**And you think I need a spear,** he noted. **And what am I to do with it--fight?**
The sarcasm brought blood to her cheeks. **I thought you might be able to use it to move around, without using as much of your power. It might come in useful. And Liria said, that she'd put the knowledge of how to finish the healing in your mind ... and you've more power than she does, surely, you can heal yourself...**
**What makes you think your brother will give me a chance?**
**Vrayl's doing the best he can!** Tears brimmed, threatening to overflow. **Why do you and Vrayl argue--can't you see it hurts Liria, hurts me?! Why should you resent not being leader any more? Vrayl never has enough time for his daughter, or for me, he's always so worried, he almost never smiles! Var, I love you, and I love my brother. Liria loves Vrayl, and she loves you. Why can't you accept the way things are? Var, I--**
**Haliil --!** He looked away, but the side of his face that was turned to her, was the one that twisted with pain and anger, and something else. **Don't ask me those questions. You have no right to ask those questions--we are not mates. Only Recognized.**
Only Recognized. The tears slid down her cheeks. She had offered heart and soul to him, and been rejected. Why? Because of what she was, a born-here, and him a Firstcomer? Yet Liria loved her born-here Recognized. **Var ...** she hesitated, but the question was suddenly burning, and had to be answered. **... If I wasn't Vrayl's sister ... would you have still ... rejected me?**
**What makes you think ...?!** His thought flashed rage as he turned, but then he met Haliil's eyes, and the thought stopped. He wanted to draw away from her, deny the tie that bound them. Yet he couldn't, she sensed; there was a feeling of pain, and another of deep regret. His hand came up and drew a thumb across her cheek. Haliil shivered, to have even that touch from him ...
**Haliil, how can I answer you? You carry my child, my child of Recognition--is not that enough? If we reach this valley of Elzrian's vision, I will teach your child--will that not satisfy you?** He touched her other cheek. **I am not Liria, child, to be able to give herself so completely, to one who can never truly comprehend all of her. I think she perhaps is stronger than myself. I ... I would love you ... if I could.** A moment, and then, with gentleness, placed his hand behind her shoulder, and pulled her to him. **I am deeply sorry, my child.**
A call from above touched them both, anxious, wondering if anything was wrong. **Our leader does not like waiting,** noted Var, but with more wryness than scorn. Drifting backwards, he plucked the taller spear from Haliil's hand. **Shall we go?**
He drifted upwards, Haliil trailing after, climbing the steep, spiral stairs. Behind them, the flame guttered out, leaving only darkness--and memories.
ushing the pace as much as he dared, Vrayl did not stop until well after dawn, halfway up the second slope among a thick cluster of trees. **Therin,** he sent to the young boy who was Diirla's and Morthrek's younger son, **climb up one of these trees, and look for any signs of humans. Morthrek, you and Diirla go down our back-trail and take turns watching. Aerva and I will take turns here. The rest of you, get some food and sleep. I want to be on the move again by sun-high, and reach the timberline by sundown.**
"Father, what about me? I can climb as good as Therin!"
Vrayl glanced at his daughter, smiling at her petulant expression. **Next time, perhaps, Maka,** he told his fire-haired child. **If you show me you can send as well as he can.**
Her green, gold-flecked eyes widened, and she clapped her hand over her mouth. **Oh! I forgot--I'm sorry, father! I won't talk again, I promise!**
He smiled at her, gesturing with his hand. She jumped over to him, then leaned against him, wrapping skinny arms as far as they would go around his hips. Vrayl ruffled her hair. **It's all right, Maka. Just remember you can never be too careful.** He looked around, listening for any untoward noise. Therin, Diirla and Morthrek had disappeared on their respective tasks. Tinar and Aerva were already sitting against one massive bole, while Liria helped Var lie down, Haliil hovering anxiously. Pulling his gaze away from that particular trio, Vrayl glanced back down at his daughter. **Here. Hold my spear.** Returning her happy smile as she gleefully grabbed it, Vrayl shrugged out of his pack, lowering it to the ground.
**You can have one piece of meat, and a handful of berries, from my pack,** he told her. **Don't drink more than a few sips of your water. We don't know when we'll be able to refill our waterbags, and we can go longer without food than without water. Do you understand?**
**Yes, father. But when are you going to eat?**
**Later.** Vrayl retrieved his spear, and gave Maka's head a last stroke. **When Aerva takes over the watch.**
**Couldn't I --**
**No.** He shook his head when she tried to persist. **You'll get your turn to help, daughter,** he reassured her. **But later.**
aliil wanted desperately to help Var, but a single glower told her that he didn't want her around. Nevertheless, she could not make herself leave, until Liria sent to her. **Haliil, why don't you go help Aerva? She must take care of herself as well as Tinar, and Vrayl wants her to stand watch.**
**But ... ** Haliil hesitated, not knowing what she wanted to say. Tinar was her chum, her childhood friend, even more precious now that Elzrian was dead. Yet Var was the one she had Recognized; Var who was father to her child, whose approval, could she ever possibly attain it, meant more than any one else's love...
Liria half-turned to look at her. With an expression of deepest compassion, the Healer rose and came to her. **Dear child.** She cupped her hands about the narrow, oval face. **How I wish that Var could give you what you want. I think he would, if he could ... but a part of him has not been well, since that day he watched Maelain's body die. Perhaps, if we find this valley Elzrian spoke of, my magic will be strong enough to heal the scars. Though even then ... accept what is, Haliil. Help him, if he allows it ... else, turn and help your friends.**
Lips quivering, Haliil tried not to cry. **I know you've said Recognition doesn't have to lead to love. I try not to be a - a bother to him, but, when, when I look at him ...**
**You see him as he was, as he would be, had we not been stranded on this inhospitable world.** Liria sighed, face drawn and weary. **I know, child. I know. And he led us once as a shining beacon, helping us to see the way ... ** She shook her head. **Go help Tinar.**
The words were a gentle order. Blinking back tears, Haliil obeyed. **Is there anything I can do?** she asked as she knelt by Tinar. Aerva gave her a quick, weary smile.
**You can help me with these leathers,** she replied. **His arm needs to be completely immobilized--I'm not satisfied these are tight enough.**
Tinar groaned mentally. **They feel quite tight as is--my ribs are sore enough now!**
Haliil stared at him in alarm. **But didn't Liria heal them?! I thought --**
He grinned at her wryly. **She did, and all the internal bleeding. It's just that my ribs haven't realized that, yet.** His smile faded, and his left eye--the other was swollen shut--lost its focus. **She pulled me back from dying, Haliil. I don't begrudge her not having the power to heal my arm ... but I can't help wishing she'd had enough for Elzrian, too. Though if Vrayl had been much longer in getting there ... Elzrian wouldn't have had to try and protect me, as Aerva got me to my feet ... and he might have seen that spear ...**
**I thought Elzrian told you not to regret,** interrupted Aerva, unwinding the leathers. **Help him sit way from the tree, Haliil.**
**He did.** Tinar winced at an injudicious move. **He said he'd always felt that his life would be short, and that I wasn't to go moping about might-have-beens. I was to find that valley, make it a home, and help Aerva raise our children. Yours, too, if you need the help.**
Haliil nodded, trying not to look at the livid, multiply-broken arm as it came into view. **Think of it as a piece of meat--that's what I'm trying to do,** sent Tinar, with an edge of pain under his wryness. **Did Elzrian say anything to you, before he left?**
Abruptly, her hands began to shake. Elzrian had not sent to her. Not even his vision. He had not said farewell. She had tried not to think about his being dead, but, suddenly, it was there. Her lovemate, her friend--she would never touch his body again, never see his laughing, green eyes or midnight-black hair. Never hear his voice whispering in her ear, or feel his hands caressing her body. Never to walk among the trees or in the meadow at night, gathering food, or just enjoying the beauty the world offered, if you knew how to look. His spirit might be lingering around them, but it would never be the same ...
Tears burst forth. Tinar put his arm around her, and leaned against her, mind touching gently. Together, they grieved, for their childhood friend and for their parents; her father, his mother. They had been too young to understand, before, when their other parents had died. This time, however, was different. Elves might not age, and the spirits might live beyond death, yet the destruction of physical form and the unraveling of emotional bonds was wrenching. They had to grieve for the change, in a world that recognized no living, without dying. They had to grieve, to go on ...
s they trudged upwards, Vrayl tried to determine his best course of action. The humans had reached the cliff top. Would they try to follow? Would their rage at what had happened outweigh their fear of the elves using their powers again? Therin had only seen six--that didn't mean there weren't more. He couldn't fight, however few or many. But neither did he want to continue with men on their trail. The slopes they faced might well be too steep for Tinar, Haliil, or the children. And he didn't dare depend too heavily on Var's gliding ability. That meant shaping a path, and that meant a trail the dullest human could follow. He was going to have to make sure that the humans either weren't following, or stopped following, and soon.
By the time they stopped again, late that afternoon, he had only one idea, and he couldn't be at all sure it would succeed. As the others dropped down to rest, Vrayl shrugged off his pack, then jumped for the lowest limb of a nearby tree. Ignoring the startled questions, he climbed rapidly, pausing finally to look east, not west. They were not that far from the timberline; not far from the first rocky, ice-bound peaks. He studied the nearest mountain, thinking, trying to decide if his idea was feasible or not. Deciding, he swiftly climbed down, with little regard for safety. Dropping to the ground, he explained his plan.
There was protest. Scowling, Vrayl retorted, **Do you have a better idea? We can't keep running with humans on our trail. Nor can we fight--nor do I want to kill again.** He centered his gaze on Var. **I know there's a chance it won't work, but can you do better?**
**If we're going to hole up, we should have done it back at the cliffs,** sent Var irritably. **At least then, we'd be comfortable.**
**The humans knew we were still alive. At least, this way, there's a chance they'll believe we're dead.**
aliil clung to Var as they glided alongside the nearly-vertical face of the mountain. She had wanted to climb the ropes as most of the others were doing--she was sure that she was strong enough. But Vrayl had refused to let her try. Var had said nothing, only glowering at her until she walked up and clasped her arms about him.
She closed her eyes, wishing that he was carrying her because he wanted to. She wished that they were gliding to some secret place that was their own, a place to be together, in Recognition and in love. Maybe the wish was foolish, but she didn't care. She had to believe that Var would turn to her, someday. When they reached Elzrian's valley. When their child was born.
The flow of power faltered, as Var gave a half-groan. Alarmed, Haliil peered upwards, and saw, through the darkness, how his face was twisted with strain and concentration. The flow of power wavered again. Haliil gasped in terror as they dropped a full elf-length. She wanted to scream, as she felt the utter vulnerability of their position, hanging in space, uncounted elf-lengths from the ground, with no glider who could come to their rescue. If only she had power! If only she could glide! But she couldn't, she had no talents, even if Liria said she did, dormant and hidden. If only she could help Var! As Elzrian had helped Vrayl and Morthrek ...
The thought of Elzrian galvanized her. She didn't know how he had linked the rockshapers and given them strength--but surely Var did! **Var!** she sent, as she felt his struggle to move them upwards. **Please --!-- link with me, take my strength! Let me help--like Elzrian did with the shapers!**
**I need--no!!** His thoughts were a lash of angry pride. But there was no force behind them. He could not even keep her awareness away. Through that touch, she could feel that exhaustion he fought with sheer will to deny.
**But you do need help!** she insisted. **Please, Var, let me help! Not for me--for you! For our daughter! I can feel your exhaustion--please! Let me help!**
He wanted to refuse. But they dropped again, as a groan was wrenched from him. Haliil tightened her grip, deepening her sending, forcing her awareness into his mind as she would not have dared before. **Link with me!** she cried. **I am Haliil, you are Var, we are Recognized, we are one! Take what you need from me! Take it!**
In the depths of his need, he could not resist.
In a single, terrifying moment, Haliil felt all her senses inundated as the High One linked with her--a moment more terrifying than Recognition. She was Var, mind and soul, quivering with a pain and exhaustion greater than any in his memory. She reached with him towards a soul unaware of its abilities, towards a power that lay dormant and unused.
But it was her soul, her power. Part of Haliil screamed in fear and pain as that link was completed, and that part of herself torn open. Power flared, and was pulled from her. She wanted to escape, to break free. But it was too late, and she was truly one with the other, seeing the stone face falling away, calling on another's power to feed the glide, hating it and himself, feeling shame at needing to take what the youngling offered. He felt the slender arms wrapped about his neck; felt the small, firm breasts and the rounded belly. The youngling that had dared to look through his eyes and see his soul, the youngling who bore a new life, his daughter, to be born into this miserable world. He wanted to hate her, or love her, and could do neither. He could only take what she had offered, floating them all to safety, in one small part of his mind, cursing that his will to live was so strong.
xhausted, Vrayl would have preferred to sleep, but could not. He could not sleep while the success of his ploy remained unknown. And he could not sleep while his sister lay unconscious, drained by her selfless offer, which she should not have made.
Liria stood up and moved towards him, her hair momentarily glowing as it caught one of the sun-rays shining through a small gap in the skins pulled over the tiny crevice Morthrek had found. He looked away from her, but she sat down beside him and placed an arm around him. **You should sleep.**
**I can't. Someone has to 'listen' for Therin.**
**Diirla can do that, and awaken you when he calls.** He felt her fingers stroking the back of his neck. **But that's not what's really keeping you awake, is it?**
He clenched his fists, staring down at them. **I nearly killed three elves. I should have known Var didn't have the strength to make three trips up the mountain--I should have known!** He tried to stop the tears gathering in his eyes, trying to shut out the images burned into his memory--Var faltering, halfway up the mountain, carrying Haliil, the burning, heart-stopping flash of terror and horror, the realization that his sister was in imminent danger of dying. And then her cry, as Var had faltered and actually fallen, and the flare of denial/insistence/agreement, and the sudden flow of power, as if Var had tapped a new source. He had watched them, ignoring his own work, as Var had glided to the top of the mountain. Only when the Firstcomer had let the limp, unmoving body down, had Vrayl realized where the power had come from ... **She shouldn't have had to link with him like that!**
**Vrayl, it's not your fault,** sent Liria, pulling him to her. **Var said he had the strength--how could you have known otherwise? Haliil is hurt but a little, and she will recover. And has not some good come out of this? Haliil knows the way to her power now--is that not good?**
**But he hurt her, taking from her like that--I know he did!**
**It was her choice, Vrayl.**
**But she shouldn't have had to make it. I should have known Var wouldn't be strong enough, hurt as he is, tired as he was. I should have found another way to get her and Tinar up here. I shouldn't have taken the risk, shouldn't have ...**
**Go to sleep.** Too late, he felt Liria's fingers touching his temples. He resisted her power, but his own body betrayed him. **Go to sleep, beloved,** he 'heard' her order. **Sleep ...**
t was dark when he woke. Vrayl bolted upright. **Liria --!**
The Firstcomer looked up from her task of combing Maka's hair. **Rested?** she asked, with a smile on her face. Vrayl glared at her, then glanced at the others.
**What happened?** he demanded in an open sending. **Who is on watch? Did the humans follow our trail to the mountain? Why wasn't I awakened?!**
**No decisions were needed.** Diirla grinned at his look of outrage. **The humans were here--and left.**
His idea had worked? **Show me!**
**I joined Therin on the watch, when the humans appeared.** Aerva's sending deepened to add sight and hearing. Vrayl tensed momentarily, then gave in. A noon-day sun in a cloudless sky revealed the results of the night's efforts. Massive, jagged boulders, shaped free from the mountain's steep slope, had settled into a depression at the base of a sheer cliff. Shattered spears and a few pieces of leather were visible around the edges of the boulders. Twelve men walked around the boulders, wearing expressions of puzzlement. Snatches of conversation rose over the distance to a keen listener's ears. They had followed the trail of the demons here, to what appeared to be catastrophe. The spears, with the smooth, shaped points, were unquestionably demons-work. Had Gortru chosen to step in, and finish what the humans had begun? Was He angry, or pleased, with them?
They tried to move one of the boulders, but they were too massive for even the combined strength of the men to shift. From the over-heard talk, doubts began to disappear. The demons were destroyed. Gortru had punished them, calling on the earth itself to crush them, even as they had used their mis-spawned powers to destroy the cave. The evil ones were dead. Their own dead had not died for nothing.
Vrayl let his head fall back as the sending ended, trying not to show too outwardly his relief. By what margin of human gullibility--and perhaps a desire not to risk more losses--had his plan succeeded? By what margin, of a steep-sloped mountain, with crevasses and flaws that shapers could take advantage of, to create a massive rockfall, without demanding more power than two tired born-heres could call on? He had insisted on his plan, despite the doubts, because it was the only idea that did not demand killing. But even he had not been sure it would succeed, though his mind had refused to consider the alternatives, if it had failed...
He looked at the others, in the darkness. Haliil and Tinar still slept, but the others were awake, watching him. **We'll rest here for a day or so,** he told them. **To get used to the altitude, and to give a chance for our wounds to heal. Then we'll head for Elzrian's valley.**
And the hard part of the journey would begin.