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The Ten Who Crossed The Mountains

Part 3

The days were rapidly growing colder, the ground in the mornings covered with frost and sometimes snow. Vrayl paused in his shaping, peering up the slope, wondering dully why he kept going. They were never going to make it. It had been a fool's quest from the beginning. They were nearly out of food, and entirely out of hope.

**Keep going, you young fool!** Vrayl winced, and tiredly turned back to his shaping. He could not seem to shake the apathy that had settled on him since Liria's death. It was wrong, he knew: she did not want him to be like this. He should have more courage. But he could not seem to reach that courage. Somehow, the leadership had slipped from his hands back into Var's. That, too, was wrong. Var was pushing them harder even than he had. He was refusing the hunters any side trips to gather food. Worse, he was forcing the pace beyond Tinar's limits. The injured elf had yet to complain, but he was lagging further and further behind, not arriving at the camp until well after the others, usually with Aerva's or Haliil's help. Those two dared to help him, despite Var's glowering, but not even they had persuaded the old elf to change his ruling that Tinar receive no more food than Therin or Maka. Tinar's body was rapidly dwindling to nothing more than skin and bones, and, one day, Vrayl thought in dull sadness, Tinar would fall, and fail to rise. And then, they would be eight. With winter almost on them.

Haliil glanced upwards, wondering why the shapers were moving their stairs so far up the mountain, up into the snow cap. It seemed a waste of effort--the mountain was so tall, they would save time and breath by going along the south shoulder. Vrayl, of course, had several times gone by himself to the top of a mountain, to scout their surroundings. But why was Var directing the trail so high? He certainly didn't need it--he was already on the top, looking ahead.

She craned her head to look back down the trail. Tinar was far below, toiling up the steps one at a time, leaning heavily on his staff. Only Aerva was further away, but climbing rapidly, two white balls of fur bouncing on the back of her pack. She must have managed to knock down some rabbits, while butchering the mountain goat she had slain earlier. At least, they would have fresh meat for the first time in nearly a moon. Maybe a successful hunt would help matters.

She doubted it. Haliil thought back to that night she had gone after Var. She hadn't expected him to take over, though with Vrayl so far in grief that he wouldn't speak or send to anyone, maybe there was no choice. But Var was being so hard and uncaring! Tinar was slowly, silently dying on his feet, and Var refused to let him be helped! Was something wrong with Var? Why wouldn't he let her help him? He never turned on her, never loosed his sarcasm or painful sendings, but when she tried to touch him, he would walk or glide away. At night, when the others were sleeping, she would wake to see him standing away from the shelter, staring into the distance, rigid and tense. His mind was shielded from he. Nevertheless, during those nights, she was somehow certain that he was fighting some internal battle. What it was, she did not know. But one night, she had roused to see him standing over Tinar, one hand reaching for that snow-white head, his face filled with confusion and pain and sorrow. The next moment, his face had changed to loathing, and his outstretched hand to a set of claws. Her gasp had distracted him. When he looked at her, the confusion returned. But when she had tried to stand up and go to him, something had slammed down on her shoulders and kept her from moving. And he vanished, not reappearing until dawn.

Within her womb, Vaerrain woke and kicked. Haliil touched her stomach with one hand and thought warmth and happiness to her unborn. In less than half a year now, Vaerrain would be born. By then, they would have found the valley. Surely Vaerrain's birth would change things for the better. No elf could resist loving a child. Not even Var. Not when it was his own.

Panting for breath (the air seemed so thin!), Vrayl finished the last steps to the peak. Rubbing his snow-chilled hands together for warmth, the young rockshaper stood beside Var and stared eastwards. Were any of the landmarks that would indicate their valley visible? Closing his eyes, Vrayl tried to summon Elzrian's vision. It came slowly, as if through gray fog. But there were peaks near the valley of very unique shapes, if the vision was true. It had to be true.

He opened his eyes again. Directly ahead, the second mountain had a curiously crooked peak, as if some giant had carved a notch out of the side. A dim excitement began to break through his apathy. That peak was a landmark. Vrayl shifted his gaze slightly north. The terrain had forced them more south in their wanderings, than north. Six mountains more should be a mountain with two peaks, the northerly a slender spire, marking the near side of the valley. Vrayl shaded his eyes, searching--"It's there!" he whispered. "Two peaks--it's there!"

Beside him, Var stirred. "It makes no difference," he said indifferently.

Var turned, surprised. "What do you mean, it doesn't make any difference?! Another moon, with any luck, we'll be there!"

Var did not look at him. "The storm will take us," he muttered tonelessly. "The white death. Appropriate. We came with the storm, we should leave with the storm."

Vrayl stared at the elder, surprise banishing the last of his apathy. "What in the name of the Palace are you talking about?! What do you--"

A scream cut him off. Vrayl snapped his head around, and saw, to his horror, Morthrek falling down the face of the mountain. He must have slipped! Before Vrayl could do more than realize that, a ledge stopped Morthrek's fall. Bright blood splattered, and Morthrek screamed again, writhing in agony.

Vrayl whirled to face the Firstcomer. "Take me down there--we've got to help him!"

"There is nothing we can do. He is gone." Var did not even look down.

"What?! We can save his life--take me down there!!"

"No." Var did not even move. Vrayl stared at him, aghast, then remembered the ropes. One was in his pack. Feverishly pulling his pack off, Vrayl took another quick glance down. Using the rope would be faster than shaping, once he reached the end of the stairs Morthrek had been shaping when he slipped. Rope in his hand, Vrayl scrambled for the Morthrek's stairs. With reckless speed, he ran down them. It was a moment's work, at the end of the stairs, to shape a curve outcropping that would support his rope. Looping the end of the rope around it, he began to descend.

The rope ended half a dozen elf lengths up. Vrayl shaped rapid hand and foot holds, jumping the last length. Morthrek tried to lift his head as Vrayl ran to him.

**There's nothing you can do,** he sent, weakly. **My legs--you can't help me.**

**I can and I will!** retorted Vrayl, dropping to his knees. **I may not be a Healer, but Liria's last gift was all that a Healer knows! Now be still and save your strength!**

The knowledge flowed with sudden freeness. It was if Liria were looking over his shoulder, whispering sure directions. Without hesitation, Vrayl went to work, shaping tourniquets to stop the spurting blood, cutting leather into strips for bandages, using the contents of his waterbag to clean the wounds. He did not notice when Diirla dropped down to join him, but with unconscious guidance accepted her aid. He used his rock-shaping to help pull the shattered bones back into position, and later set splints. Sinew and a bone needle came to his hand when needed, and more strips of leather to bind the splints.

And then, it was done. Vrayl shook his head, blinking, dazed. Glancing up, he sensed that it was late afternoon. Lowering his gaze, he met Diirla's eyes. **You saved his life,** she sent, tears trembling in her lashes. **He would have bled to death. Thank-you.**

Vrayl glanced down, feeling a bit surprised at his handiwork. And at how he felt--why had he been in a daze for so long? Deciding that was a question he could worry about later, he dismissed it. Climbing to his feet, he looked around, assessing their situation.

The wind was from the north, cold and wet. The sky was darkening with clouds. Snow. He looked around, and felt mildly surprised that everyone--with the exception of Var--was crowded on the small ledge. Glancing at his sister, he asked privately, **Var?**

She shook her head, eyes reddened from crying. **I went up to him. I tried to get him to come. He wouldn't answer me--wouldn't even listen to me! Ever since Liria died, he's been fighting himself over something, and I think he's losing!**

Vrayl thought back over the years, to the night when he had challenged Var's authority. Madness had dwelled in Var that night. If madness was claiming him again, this time there was no Liria to Heal him, to soothe the pain. **If you couldn't persuade him, no one else can,** he replied sadly, swallowing an aching lump in his throat. **I'm sorry.** She nodded, fresh tears sliding down her cheeks. But she knew what the wind carried as well as he. Blizzard.

Forcing himself to ignore the problem Var represented, Vrayl looked around. The ledge was too small for them to stay the night: he did not have the strength the enlarge it enough. But below them, and a little bit to the north, was a large, broad ledge, with a bit of a wall on the northern end that, with some effort, could be shaped clear around into a cave. The problem was getting Morthrek down. He frowned, trying to imagine solutions. Thankfully, they had the ropes. As it was, he wasn't going to have time to go back up the mountain to retrieve the one --

He realized that he hadn't seen it during his look around. He glanced upwards. **Who managed to get the rope down?** he demanded

**I did.** Therin grinned bashfully, then shrugged as Vrayl glanced at him. **It's not that hard to climb.**

Vrayl let himself smile. **You just saved us a rope, Therin. Now, listen, everyone.** He focussed on the group. **There's no time for steps, and those wouldn't help Morthrek. I'm going down to shape hand- and foot-holds, and a couple of very small ledges. Therin, you and Haliil will help lower Tinar with one rope. Aerva and Diirla, you'll be lowering Morthrek with double ropes--he'll be lashed to a the thinnest rock bed I can manage. We've got to work fast before the wind rises. Any questions?**

**What about me, father?**

He did not smile at her. **I have a very important task for you, if you think you can do it. There will be a third rope attached to Morthrek's bed. You will use that to keep him from swinging about too much.** He gave her the instructions, using images to help her understand. **You will need to be extremely careful--can you do it?** She stared at him wide-eyed, and did not answer immediately. Then she nodded.

Vrayl worked as fast as he could. Pulling a thin layer of rock up to surround Morthrek, he left the others to lash the unconscious elf to the impromptu bed. Fastening one rope at the end of the small ledge, he began his descent, shaping holes and gripping spaces with as much speed as he could, trying to remember to keep them close together so smaller elves could use them. When he dropped about two-thirds the length of the rope, he pulled a tiny ledge from the mountainside, feeling the drain on his strength as he did. He added the necessary loops to twist the ropes around, then continued his descent. Twice more, he had to create ledges. Finally level with the main ledge, he had to shape a narrow path to it. Glancing up, he saw that Tinar was already standing on the first ledge, with Therin and Haliil climbing down in single file. Hoping desperately that no one would slip, Vrayl turned his attention to the north end of the ledge. They would need as much windbreak as he could create. If the spirits of the dead elves could give anyone strength, then they must give him strength now.

He was not sure, after, just how the others managed to get down to the ledge without incident. Concentrating on the wall of stone, Vrayl lost all awareness of externals, until a frantic sending from Haliil found him. Blinking, he found himself sliding down to the floor, his limbs as weak as glass. **How ... are they?** he managed to get out.

**They're on the last ledge,** came the answer, but not from Haliil. Tinar gave him a small grin as Vrayl looked up. **Therin's replaced Maka. And not only will we have fresh meat, but Aerva sneaked some wood into her pack as well.** His smile faded, as his sending deepened to a private link. **You came back to your senses just in time, Vrayl. I never thought I'd think it of anyone, but I think Var's thought about killing me.**

By using the wall, Vrayl struggled to push himself to his feet. Managing that, he met Tinar's dark gaze. **I wish I could do something to make up for what he's done to you,** he offered sadly. **I don't understand how you've managed to keep from collapsing.**

There was just a hint of a grin. **And miss holding the daughter Liria saved for us? Never.**

The wind was howling and beating against the shaped walls, but under the conditions, the elves were not in terrible danger. Haliil glanced around. Vrayl had somehow managed to create a small cave on the end of the ledge, with an opening no more than a tall elf high by half an elf wide. A leather blanket had been sacrificed to close off the entrance. With a tiny fire, and a warm meal, and by huddling together, everyone was almost comfortable. Maka and Vrayl were already asleep, while Tinar was nodding. **We'll need to keep watch tonight, to make sure no one gets too cold,** sent Diirla. **Who wants to watch when?**

**I'll take first watch,** offered Haliil immediately, not having the slightest desire to sleep. Diirla decided that she would take second, while Aerva chose to take third. While the two older women busied themselves with making their injured mates as comfortable as possible, Haliil sat cross-legged and stared at the fire, trying to keep back a fresh spate of tears. Somewhere out in that blizzard was her Recognized, the sire of her daughter. Somewhere out there was Liria's lovemate. Somewhere out in the icy wind and snow was a grief-maddened Firstcomer. Var. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, as tall and handsome as any elf maiden could ask for. And beyond that shape, his soul, as she had seen it--confident, outgoing. And the shape beyond the world's confine, more slender and graceful than any born-here, large, slanted eyes and hairless skulls--the original form, but made of fire, ever changing, ever moving, but ever and always knowing self. Var. Firstcomer. The elf she had given her heart to. The elf who had rejected her --

Vrayl screamed.

Haliil jumped to her feet as her brother's body writhed, as he screamed in agony a second time. **Vrayl!** She tried to send, but something was in her way. **Vrayl!!**

**It is time to leave.** The sending raked across her open mind, and, she sensed from the cries, across all the others. It came from behind her, with a ripping sound and a wash of cold air. Haliil spun. In the entrance was Var. A Var with no sanity in his face.

**We must go back in the storm. We have been here too long.** Haliil bit her lip against the burning pain, and felt her unborn move. Var's eyes were lit with a hellish, inner fire. **You have refused, so I must make you. You must all die.**

**No!!** Haliil jumped forward. **Var, listen to me!! You mustn't do this--we want to live! Please, Var, think of your daughter--think of me!**

If he heard her, he made no sign. **You will all die now.**

Haliil screamed and crumpled to her knees under that first lash of pure mental power seared through her mind and soul. In her womb, her daughter jerked, the still-forming mind radiating pain. Biting her lips, Haliil struggled to somehow protect herself and her unborn child. I want to live! her mind screamed in defiance. I want my daughter to live!!

But the sending went on and on. Hands wrapped around her belly, Haliil fought back with all her strength. She was Haliil! Daughter of Daleur, daughter of Maelain, sister to Vrayl and mother of Vaerrain!! She was Haliil, and her unborn was Vaerrain, and they would both live! Live! Live!!

Somehow she managed to push the pain back. Opening her eyes, Haliil slowly turned her head to look behind her.

She nearly lost control. Most were unconscious, their bodies limp, only their faces alive with agony. Only Tinar and Aerva were consciously resisting, their three hands grasped together, visibly trembling with their effort.

Haliil looked away, unable to watch and still maintain her defenses. She swallowed, tasting blood. What could she do?! Her brother, her family and friends were dying! Var was killing them, and she didn't have the strength of mind to stop him! What could she do how could she stop him?!

Cramps twisted her belly. Haliil moaned, knowing her baby would die if she couldn't stop Var soon. Var was killing his child of Recognition, he was killing her! She had to stop him--whatever it took, she had to make him stop!!

Her body spasmed as her defenses began to weaken, her arm brushing against her knife. The next moment, the hilt was in her hand. Haliil bit her lip, shaking in pain and an inner agony. She couldn't!! There must be another way! More cramps rippled across her abdomen. She felt her daughter kicking convulsively. Vaerrain was dying! And all the others! Vrayl, Maka, Tinar, Aerva First-Born, the rest--she mustn't let them die! No choice, no choice at all!!

Lifting her head, tears blurring her vision, Haliil saw Var standing just beyond the entrance. His head was thrown back, his arms flung outwards, and alight with the terrible force of his sending. The sending that willed killing--no choice!

With a scream of denial that tore her throat, Haliil lurched to her feet and ran forward. And with all her strength, she drove the blade into his chest, driving it upwards, before the manic sending drove her to her knees again --

The sending shattered abruptly into quickly melting shards.

Shaking with pain, Haliil looked up. Var was looking down at the blood running over his fingers. Raising his eyes, he stared at her. **You ... struck me.**

**I had to!** she cried. **Var, I can't let you kill us--I can't let you kill our child! We want to live!**

**But ... but it is so hard to live on this world.** His sending seemed genuinely bewildered. **It is much simpler simply to die, and exist only as spirit.**

**But that isn't what we want!** she burst out. **Var, you Firstcomers made your choice long ago, before the home-world died, to keep flesh! You had a choice--why do you try to deny us ours?! I love you, Var, but I can't let you kill us--it's not your choice, it's ours!! Please!!**

**I ...** He swayed, staggering backwards as the wind caught him. **Haliil ... I ... I ...** He lifted his hand, staring at the blood covering his fingers. then looked back at her. **This is madness? To refuse love? To ... deny choice? I ... ** He staggered again, and looked back at his hand. **I ... I am ... mad. I ... refused ... love ... ** He looked at her. **Forgive me. Beloved.**

Var stepped backwards, off the Ledge.

Haliil screamed and lunged forward, falling to her hands and knees as the wind slammed her down. **Var!!** she sent. **Var!!** Sobs shook her, as she crumpled onto her side. Var had called her beloved, had asked her forgiveness, and then deliberately stepped to his death. **Why, Var, why?!** she sent, in an agony of spirit far worse than the earlier pain. **Why couldn't you have loved me?! Why couldn't I have stopped you some other way? Var, I love you! I love you!**

**Shh, beloved. Haliil, please, don't cry.**

With a gasp, she started up, staring wildly around. But Var had not somehow returned; not in flesh. Only a ghostly, pale image, and not of the blond-haired, blue-eyed form she'd known. **Do not cry, beloved,** the voice in her mind repeated, as it knelt before her. **I have only these few moments, as my body dies, and I would give you what comfort I can.** A ghostly hand moved as it to caress her head. **You saved me, beloved, and all your kin. My madness was an illness that took root before you were born. There was nothing you could have done. When Liria died, I should have listened to my heart and left with her. I should have listened to her words, to forget anger and cherish love. Instead, I let my madness free, and willed more than my own destruction. It took your knife, your blow, to free me.** The other hand came up, as if to wipe her tears away. **Beloved, I ask you: do not loathe yourself. Live for your daughter, and live for me. Live, so I may see our daughter through your eyes. Haliil.**

**But, Var --**

**No.** The image wavered. **Live for me, Haliil. Live, and love. Remember, beloved. We are with you. We are with you all.**

For a moment, his image shifted, becoming the blue and gold elf of her knowing. Then, it was gone, and only the echo of his presence remained.

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Epilog

With a squall of protest, Vaerrain came into the world, supported in Diirla's hands. As Haliil slumped against him, panting from her exertions, Vrayl studied the wailing newborn, with her thin hatch of pale brown hair, then looked around. Somehow, against the odds, they had survived. Reed-thin and nearly-starved, yet still alive. All of them. It was spring. New-Leaf time. New life time.

Vaerrain did not cease to complain, until she finally discovered a nipple. Watching with a sad smile, Vrayl thought back to that time a few short years before, when it had been Liria in his arms, and Maka at her breast.

**I had to do it for her.**

**Haliil?** Vrayl leaned forward, trying to catch a glimpse of her face. It was the first time she had sent to him--sent to anyone--since that terrible night. No one knew exactly what had happened after Var attacked. They knew only that Aerva discovered Haliil outside the cave, sobbing and barely conscious, with a blood-stained knife in her hand. Haliil had refused to say anything, and withdrawn so totally that she had not spoken the entire season.

Tears were sliding down her cheeks. **He forgave me. After I knifed him. He forgave me. And called me beloved. And stepped off the Ledge.**

Vrayl freed one hand and touched her cheek with the back of his fingers. **Do you want to tell me about it?** he asked as gently as he could. **Or someone else?**

She didn't answer immediately, tears continuing to fall. **I loved him, brother. I loved him, and I killed him.**

**You said you had to do it for her,** he reminded her. **Your daughter.**

**Yes.**

Vrayl considered what to say, sensing that Haliil, for her own sake, needed to speak on what had happened. Yet, she was finding it difficult to begin. If he said the wrong thing, it could keep her from telling. And then her grief would fester.

**Haliil,** he began, after thinking for some time, **by some quirk of fate, we three siblings--you, Aelin, and myself--of all the born-heres, were fated to Recognize Firstcomers, as did no other born-heres in our group. And, by yet another quirk, all of us lived to see our mates die.

**I don't know what Aelin went through when Soriaythek died, since it occurred before either you or I existed. Nor can I imagine the agony of your choice, to preserve the lives of ten, by killing the one you loved. I am no healer, to heal the pain in your mind. I am only your brother.

**All I can say is this. I am your brother, flesh of your flesh. I, too, know sorrow, and I, too, have lost my Recognized. Will you not share your pain with me? Sister?**

She trembled in his arms, fresh tears falling. But, finally, she nodded. **It began two years ago. You were on a hunting trip. I was on top, checking the drying fruit, when Var glided down with another basket. I - I looked up ...**