ausing for a breath on the steep slope, Vrayl eased around to watch his followers, one in particular. Tinar was toiling up the shaped steps one at a time, clinging to the hand-holds, his spear strapped across his back. Vrayl narrowed his eyes, frowning. The injured elf had yet to make a complaint, but it was obvious that he was close to the end of his strength, for this day. Night had fallen, and they were going to have to stop, decent campsite or no.
Vrayl let his gaze lengthen. Morthrek was considerably behind the small knot of elves, lagging to provide a defense against anything that might follow them. Somewhere to the south, where the dip between the two mountains dropped to a small valley, Diirla and Aerva were hunting, out of sight, but not quite sensing range. Hopefully they would find something--the last five days had brought in nothing more than a few scraggly ground squirrels or birds, and some barely edible roots and berries. Keeping everyone on short rations made it harder for them to keep moving. But he had to balance their slender supplies against the distance he knew they still had to travel.
Thinking of that, Vrayl returned to his task, shaping steps up the shoulder of the mountain. The rock told him that the eastern slopes of this mountain dipped much farther than the western slopes. That suggested a valley, and, with any luck, some trees and a stream. Perhaps a good enough valley to take a one-day break, to hunt and rough-dry some meat, and give Diirla a chance to grow some out-of-season food.
The smaller moon, round in its fullness, was just rising as Vrayl eased his way around a vertical rise. Looking down, he expected the darkness of treetops --
And gasped as he saw a sheet of ice sweeping from one mountain to the next, and from a jagged peak in the north, to as far south as he could see. It gleamed in the silver light, a swath of frozen water beyond the elf's knowledge or imagining. A motionless river of frigid cold and unknown danger...
Vrayl collected his wits, trying to shake off the surprise and dismay. **Var!** he sent. **Come up here--I need you!**
Annoyance flashed back at him. **What is the problem, now, boy--forgotten how to shape?**
**There's ice ahead of us--between the mountains.** Vrayl kept his temper. **I need you to look, and tell me if you've come across this kind of ice before. And if so, what kind of dangers we face.**
Var chose not to answer, which meant that he was coming. Closing his eyes, Vrayl concentrated on widening the ledge. He had barely finished when Var settled lightly beside him. Risking a glance at the Firstcomer, Vrayl saw little more than the fair, curling hair glinting as it moved under the small breeze's impetus. But while there was no external sign of his injury, the paralysis still lingered.
The Firstcomer shifted his position, and glowered at the younger leader. **I am surprised you did not pester your parents for more tales of our first journey. Or, have you just forgotten, that we did encounter glaciers as well?**
**Glaciers were never mentioned to me,** Vrayl sent, with as much evenness in his thoughts as he could achieve. **What problems did you encounter?**
**None. We were intelligent enough to go around them.**
Vrayl eased forward a step, looking north, then south. **It would take too many days to go around. Do you have any knowledge on how--and if--we can cross the ice?**
**And what makes you think I would know anything?**
**Because you and Liria are the only two elves who might know anything,** answered Vrayl, a bit testily, freshly irritated by Var's attitude. **Do you know anything?**
The burning rage told him the answer, before Var finally was able to send a curt negative. Biting back a sigh, Vrayl studied the ice directly below him, thinking. Backing up, he turned around to look at the others. Tinar had toiled up nearly to the horizontal path Vrayl had shaped, Liria and Therin hovering behind and before him to give him help, if needed. Haliil was on the short path, and gave him a curious glance. Morthrek was still behind the others, standing still and looking south. Vrayl waited until he stirred, then sent to him.
**They are on their way back,** Morthrek assured him. **Diirla says they'll be back by the time Small Moon is half-high. With food.**
So they'd been successful. **Good. Join me up here--I need to discuss something with you.**
Morthrek ran up the steps until he caught up with the others, then swung out onto the raw stone, shaping small hand- and foot-holds as he went. Very soon, he was on the path next to Vrayl. **What do you want?** he asked. Vrayl pointed eastwards. Morthrek took a look, then exclaimed, **Great Stars! How do we get across that?!**
**I'm hoping you can learn that from the ice.** Vrayl sent quickly, before Morthrek could protest. **Ice is a solid, crystalline form. It may be that you can touch it and learn its substance, as you do rock. Var, I want you to lock-send with him, so that you can keep him from becoming lost.**
They both looked at him, Morthrek startled, and Var scowling. **Why Morthrek? Why not you?** he challenged.
Vrayl met Var's eyes, wishing that for once--just once!--the Firstcomer would not contest his every request. **Morthrek is more experienced than I am.**
**Are you sure that's all, youngling? Or, are you afraid to touch the ice? Afraid to get lost, as you put it? Are you going to let Morthrek do something you're afraid to do?**
Vrayl's temper snapped. **No! Curse you, Var, stop questioning every single decision I make! I'd do it myself, but do you really want to lock-send with a youngling elf you despise?!** Locking gazes with the older elf, he continued, with no less heat, but with more control. **Stop reacting with your emotions and think, will you!? We can't afford to have someone to lose their self, and you are the best elf to watch for that happening and prevent it! I can trust you to work with Morthrek, where I can not trust you and I! Would you chose ourselves, to attempt such a thing, if you were making the decisions?**
The blue eyes wavered, then looked away. Vrayl took a deep breath, then let it out, forcing his anger away. **Var. Please. I need your knowledge and experience for this, and strength. I also need a rockshaper. Surely, I am not wrong, to think that you would prefer to work with Morthrek?**
The blond-haired elf said nothing. After a moment, he glided away from the path. Morthrek flicked an unreadable glance at Vrayl before following on foot. He watched them go, then closed his eyes. Leaning against the sheer slope, he held his face in his hands, aching in an inner pain. What would he give to have the elder's acceptance? To not have to constantly set his will against the Firstcomer? He was so tired of the conflict, so tired. But there was nothing he could do to change Var's mind. Nothing.
hey crossed the ice the next night, Morthrek and Var leading the way, with thin plates of studded rock wrapped around everyone's feet to keep them from slipping. On the other side, they rested for a while, then continued.
Days passed, most relentlessly blue, lengthening, then beginning to shorten. Supplies dwindled, and bellies shrunk, though hunters ranged as far as they could. When time came to rest, most were ready to drop in their tracks. Yet when it came time to move, no one failed to climb to their feet, for the urgency was known by all. They must achieve their goal by fall...
ce again. Both moons rode high and full, making the ice almost too bright to look at. Vrayl squinted, watching the dark figures ahead of him, strung out in a long line. How many more ice fields were they going to have to cross? he wondered tiredly. They were past the highest point of the mountains now, but as best he could tell from Elzrian's spirit, the elves were still far from their destination. Time was running against them. The days were still warm, and mostly clear, but that would change, and soon. If only they could move faster. If only all of them could glide. If only --
Vrayl froze as a faint crack reached his sensitive ears. Something was wrong. The spirits swirled around him--danger! He looked down at the ice, and heard another crack, and felt a surge of horror--"Scatter!" he screamed. "The ice--it's breaking!!" Whirling, he leapt towards his back-trail, knowing even as he did, that it was too late--
With a roar of groaning cracks, the rotting ice collapsed into the unsuspected chasm. Vrayl fell, hearing the screams as others fell with him. Indigo walls flashed by him, and in the few instants before agony smashed him into oblivion, he had only time to despair--he had failed them! He had failed!
he ice shook and fell away beneath her feet. Haliil cried out in fear and denial--no! She didn't want to die! Ahead of her, she saw Tinar stagger. He was falling too! He would die, too!
"No!" She screamed, lunging forward, the place in her that Var had torn open flaring with power in her need. "I won't let you die, too!" Without conscious thought, with instinctual knowledge that could only have come from another's mind, she flew forward. Slamming into Tinar, she lifted with all of her strength, hazily aware of the edge of shattered ice before them. It fell away, then passed behind them. They fell again as her brief spurt of power failed, but it was only to the unbroken surface, and not the fatal depths...
Head aching, throat burning, Haliil half-slid, half-crawled to her hands and knees, every limb shaking. Beside her, Tinar moaned. Opening her eyes, she saw his face twisted in pain, and realized that they had come down on his bad side. Taking his good hand, she squeezed it to let him know she was there. **I'm sorry,** she sent. **I couldn't hold on long enough to land gently.**
Tinar didn't seem to hear, but his pain-soaked thoughts reached desperately for hers. **Aerva. I can't feel her. Where is she? What's happening! I can't feel her!**
Paling, Haliil looked back over her shoulder. On the very edge of the chasm, Therin was lying face down, Maka still grasping one hand. Morthrek was next to them, staring downwards, his mind flaring with shock. Of Var, there was no sign. Legs trembling, Haliil climbed to her feet, not releasing her grip. She could not see all of the bottom of the chasm, but she could see enough. There were four elves down there, bodies lying broken and bleeding on the cold, wet ice. Including her brother.
And the Healer.
ain could not sever the bond. He felt her thoughts stirring, quivering against pain, fighting. He reached for her. **Liria. Beloved. Why fight? We are going together. We will stay together.**
**No.** He felt her gathering her will. **Vrayl, beloved. Would you leave Maka without her parents? Tinar and Morthrek without their mates? Haliil without her brother? Give me your strength, Vrayl! We must live--I must heal!**
Memories returned. In the far distance, he sensed his daughter staring down at the catastrophe, her mind quivering under a terrible fear. Maka must not see both her parents die! Strength welled as he realized that he wanted to live. **We must heal,** he agreed. **Liria, whatever I have. It is yours. Whatever it costs. We must heal!**
**We are High Ones, star-roamer, and born-here, and we are one! No fear, no pain, only two become one!**
Awareness expanded. He and she were as one. They felt a butterfly wisp of other. They lunged mentally, as if to catch it in cupped hands. It was so fragile. Aerva's unborn. Too new, too unformed to survive if its tiny body perished. Carefully--so carefully--they returned the selfling to its shell, weaving the broken threads together. Awareness trembled, fought to reach them, help me, I don't want to lose my child, I don't want to die! **We will heal,** they promised, soothing the desperate soul. **But give us your strength, dear Aerva, first-born to our small group. Life-bringer. We have her safe, now we must heal you.**
Another called out, plucking the ties of blood. **Mother. I feel you. Can you help me? Morthrek needs me, Therin, I must live for them if I can.**
**You will live, daughter, but only if I can weave the threads of all our strengths together. Come to us, Diirla! Come!**
They were four-fold, yet joined as one, an ancient, knowing mind weaving the four into a gleaming whole. Four bodies lay broken amidst ice shards and colder water, and they knew what needed done. They reached out to heal --
A cry from outside tore at the web. **No! Liria, do not waste yourself attempting to save these--save yourself! They are nothing! Forget them!**
**Forsake my children for myself?!** The web flared with disbelief, then anger--and increased determination. **My lover and friend, what has this world made of you? You, also, need healing! Give me what strength is yours!**
But the blazing will that was Liria would not be denied. As light exploding into darkness, as a fifth soul was pulled into the web, power flared, beyond the experience of three born-here souls. The web wavered, as one ancient soul willed to be otherwise. But the Healer would not let him go. She was a High One, ancient beyond knowing, seeker of knowledge, once traveller of all space and time. The world of two moons had crippled her powers and tormented her with suffering and loss. Pain had crippled her; hypersensitivity of body and mind had kept her from using her powers as they were meant to be used, her will unable to withstand the cost. But not now. If only for this one time, she was as she had been. A being of fire, with no form except what she chose.
And she chose to Heal.
Holding the four within her thoughts, holding the strength of five elves within her soul, she Healed. One after the other, the Healer passed unseen hands down broken bodies, reweaving, merging, Healing. Life-bringer and Unborn. Daughter. Lifemate. And, as with a flick of fingers reaching through a skull to touch a knotted mass, a paralysis was banished. It was done. And done well. She smiled.
One by one, she let them go, caressing their souls with love and wisdom, reminding them of who they were. Aerva. First-born, life-bearer. Tinar is your strength, as you are his. Be two become one, and you will never falter. Diirla. First daughter. Daughter of love, daughter of desire. Tree-shaper, your womb is not yet empty. There will be others.
Var. Lovemate. Remember why we chose flesh. Forget anger and remember love. They are our children.
Vrayl. Lifemate. Recognized. See yourself always through my eyes, that sees you not lessened for being born on a stranger world. And one gift, not for you, but for the tribe. Until the power that now must sleep wakens in another...
Knowledge poured into one part of his mind, even as he began to fall away from the bright flame that was Liria. Vrayl cried out, trying to stay with her, but she pushed him gently away, unraveling the ties. **There was not enough for all, beloved,** she sent to him, every thought more distant. **My choice. I am with you always, but in a different way.**
e seemed to fall a very long time in darkness, oblivion gathering, then dissipating beneath the awareness that he was lying on something very cold and very wet. Opening his eyes, Vrayl saw the indigo cliffs which gave way to a black sky lit by two silver moons. The ice had broken, he recalled, plunging himself and three others to the bottom of this frigid canyon. The fall should have been fatal for all. But Liria--
Vrayl leapt to his feet, staggering for a moment with dizziness. As the swooping sensation faded, he managed to look around. Aerva was sitting up, hands over her stomach, tears streaking down a face that was lit with a smile of incredulous joy. Beyond her, Diirla was sitting up on her elbow, looking dazed. And past her, looking down, was Var. The Firstcomer looked up, meeting his eyes. Vrayl found himself walking towards the old elf, unable to look away, until he was standing less than a length away. The fathomless gaze drew him downwards, as they both knelt together. And then, he looked down, and touched the still, cold face, and closed the once-sparkling, intense green eyes.
He looked back up into those blue eyes, and knew, that for perhaps the only time in their lives, Var and he shared the same knowledge and emotion. Liria's body was dead, leaving them with grief, and searing emptiness. She who had loved them both ... Tears beginning to trickle down his cheeks, Vrayl raised his hand in an wordless offer. Not breaking the gaze, Var's hand, trembling, covered his. They clasped hands for a timeless moment, acknowledging the shared grief and pain.
And, then, with a silent snarl, Var tore himself away.
ight had come again, and a mountain lay between them and the fateful glacier. Legs aching with weariness, Haliil clung to one side of the shaped shelter, unable to decide what to do. The last day cycle was the worst she could ever remember. It didn't seem possible, that the Healer could be dead, especially with the other three alive. But she was. She had watched Var glide out of the chasm with the broken body in his arms. He had vanished. Diirla had sent, organizing those above to let down one of the ropes so that the other three could climb out. When they finally reached the edge of the ice, the sun was rising. But, Vrayl had not stopped, forcing them to continue, though he had neither said nor spoken a word. They had climbed all that day, not halting until early evening, when Tinar had collapsed in mid-stride, saved from a fatal fall only by Therin's quick grab. Vrayl had stared at the white-haired elf, before wordlessly beginning to shape a shelter around the unconscious elf, though there was no water visible and their waterbags more than half-empty. Morthrek had joined him in the effort. By the time they finished, Tinar had roused, enough to pull himself to a seated position. And everyone had collapsed into three small clumps. Maka was nearly hidden by her father's arms and hair, while the two mated pairs clung to each other. Only Therin, sitting at his father's feet, seemed less than exhausted. Sensing her gaze, he looked around at Haliil, his expression fearful. **What should I do?** he asked. **Haliil, I don't know what to do--no one's been hunting, no one remembered to chip ice for our waterbags, no one's preparing a meal--what should I do?**
Haliil felt a touch on her shoulder. She whirled, but there was no one there. She turned back to the shelter. The same touch, lighter than any feather, came to her head. Her eyes widened, as sudden realization came to her. **Liria?**
The faintest of assents caressed her mind. She wasn't sure of that, and yet, the young elf knew what she had to do. **Therin, get food out and make sure everyone eats--especially Tinar and Vrayl. Get out the honey and add that to the food.**
**But the honey is only to be used in an emergency,** he objected.
**This is an emergency,** she told him. **When you've made sure that everyone has eaten, help Aerva with Tinar. We came down on that bad shoulder last night. She's got to make sure there hasn't been any bleeding, and maybe readjust the bandages, so he is in as little pain as possible.**
**But what are you going to do, while I'm doing all this?** he asked.
She took a deep breath. **Find Var.**
aliil moved north, climbing carefully, making small gliding jumps over the more dangerous spots. The almost-touch came from time to time, as if to guide her direction, and she knew Liria was with her still. The knowledge gave her strength. Nevertheless, she was relieved when Var's still form appeared on a ridge. Panting in the thin air of the heights, she changed direction and clambered towards him.
He did not seem to be aware of her approach until she was less than three lengths away. Then he whirled to face her. **What are you doing out here?!** he demanded. She eased herself to a sitting position.
**We are looking for you.**
His eyes narrowed. **We?**
**Myself, Vaerrain ... and another.**
Var started, looked around, and paled, eyes focussing to one side. "Liria!" he cried, taking a step forward. "Liria!" He trembled, hands reached towards nothing. "No!" His hands shook. "Don't ask that of me!"
The silent conversation, if such it was, went on for some time. At its end, Var slowly crumpled to a seated position, hiding his face in his hands, but not before Haliil saw the sheen of tears. She hesitated, then slowly walked forward. Kneeling, she gently reached for one of his hands and took it between both of hers. Slowly, he looked up. "What do you want?"
**I want to help you,** she said simply, **in whatever small way I can. I want you to come back with me. I want you to be the father of my child, and not just her sire.**
His face was white and haggard. "You don't know what you're asking," he whispered. "Nor does Liria. How can you understand--I am alone! No one else lives, save one, and she runs on four feet and does not remember! Of all my bond group, only I still live and remember!"
Haliil felt hot tears on her face. **And what can I say, Var, save that I love you? Ignore me or spurn me, I can't change what I've felt since I looked through your eyes! I will do whatever is within my power to help you, to lessen in whatever small measure the grief you bear! But we--all of us--we still need you! Your powers, your knowledge, your self! Vaerrain will need you--a glider and more, and who will teach her, if you do not? Please do not leave us, Var--do not leave me!**
He looked away, and did not reply. For a few moments, she sensed the dark storm in his emotions, but even that faded as he shut her out. But he could not stop the tension in his hand which she grasped, or change the paleness of his face.
But, finally, he stood up, scooped her into his arms, and started to glide towards the camp. Haliil wondered why she felt no relief, carried in his arms...