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Courage Is

he snow was red.

Flicker stared at the melting slush in front of him, gasping for breath. Sweat rolled into the corner of one eye, stinging. Blinking, he raised his hand to wipe his forehead. When he brought it down, he saw that the leather glove was soaked with blood.

His blood.

Screwing his eyes shut for a moment, Flicker opened them again, fighting against the dullness of his thoughts, vaguely knowing that the dullness was shock, and dangerous. Breathing deeply, he counted slowly to a hand, then breathied out again. The air was sharp and cold, but he welcomed it even as he knew the danger it threatened. Breathing deeply a second time, the young elf forced himself to look down at himself. A flash of horror, only dimmed by the present shock, washed through him. His left hand, save for a few tattered fragments of white bone and bleeding flesh, was gone.

There had been a long-tooth

No. Biting his lower lip, Flicker pushed back the threatening drift of memories, fighting to recall his lessons of only a few years ago. His remaining hand sought for his knife. The scabbard was empty. The stone buckle of his belt came to his hand. Shaping the stone away, he wrapped it loosely about his maimed wrist, clenched his jaws together, then tightened the ring with one swift thought.

Agony flamed up his arm. Flicker strangled the scream in his throat as blackness threatened his vision and memory flashed back to the moment when the great cat's jagged teeth came together into his hand as he just failed to leap out of range. He had been such a fool! His hand was gone, he'd never get it back even if he somehow made it back to the Isle even if the Healer hadn't been killed this summer past and they'd never let him forget what he was—

"No." Flicker snarled the negative aloud, dragging the flurry of thoughts to a standstill. "I won't give in!"

At least he had not been foolish enough to take the heal-crafting lessons lightly. Nor had he been foolish enough to forego putting together a heal-craft kit before sneaking out of the Isle. Wiping his forehead again and combing back a few stray locks of light-brown hair, Flicker carefully examined himself. His left leg was clawed from hip to knee, but the rest of his body felt unharmed. He'd used up more than his share of luck, Flicker reflected in one corner of his mind as he worked the bag off his belt and into his lap. He'd better make sure he didn't need any more.

Pulling his blood-soaked glove off, Flicker sorted through the contents of the bag, setting out the items he would need. From one small, rawhide box, he removed a thick, golden-brown oval. It was tougher than dried meat, thanks to the cold, but he chewed stubbornly as he wrapped his upper leg as best he could with one hand and tiny pieces of rock biting into the soft strips of leather to hold them in place. Swallowing the last of the dose of pain-ease—which all the honey could not disguise the sour taste—the elf used the remaining strips to wrap the stump of his wrist.

Left arm immobilized by leather ties, Flicker pulled his water bag out from under his parka and took a long drink. Replacing it, he restored it and the larger bag to their previous locations. Looking around for the nearest tree, the young elf narrowed his eyes in concentrated, then lifted himself from the ground. His leg howled with agony as it shifted position, and he fell more than landed against the tree, keeping himself upright only with a wild grab of the slender trunk. Dizziness darkened his vision and made his head ache for long moments. When his eyes cleared, he realized that the light was dimmer than it should be. The few fragments of sky visible through the branches were dark gray. Even as he stared upwards in dismay, a few fat snowflakes drifted past his face.

Trying not to shiver, Flicker looked around. The small dale was well-sheltered, the old snow packed from the milling of the deer which had been here until his hunt panicked them. But he didn't dare make camp here. Not with the bodies that would almost certainly draw the local wolf-pack or other predators. He stared at the corpse of the long-tooth. Beyond it lay his broken spear and the skinned body of the deer. His knife, shaped into a strangling circle of stone, was invisible through the thick ruff of the feline's neck.

He knew what he should do. Retrieve knife and flint blade from the spear, cut down a sapling to use for a staff, then abandon his catch and his remaining pride. He should head back towards the Lake, and the tunnel he had used to steal away from the Isle, sending to Farseeker in the hope that the far-walker would sense his plea for help and send hunters to find him and help him back in.

It was the only sensible action, if he wanted to live.

Flicker thought about the reception he would get when he returned, maimed and crippled. His jaws set and his lips thinned, as the fingers of his remaining hand dug into the bark of the tree. He wasn't going back. He wasn't giving in.

Not now.

arseeker walked slowly up the spiral stairs, hugging himself to protect his injured side, trying not to wince with every step. Much as he didn't want to admit it, he was relieved that Tinar had insisted on making the evening checks with the hunting group. More than a quarter-turn of the seasons had passed since that disastrous day on the Lake-Holder, and still a simple far-walk exhausted him more than it did Tinar. How much longer would it be before he regained his strength? he wondered. Little wonder Tinar had resisted the idea of sending hunters out this cold season, no matter how low the food stores were.

"What are you doing, Danaan?" Farseeker paused to look up as Whlen drifted towards him. "Shall I carry you back to your room?"

Farseeker shook his head. "Morningstar suggested I should start taking walks, that it might help my body grow stronger."

"Ah." Whlen dropped down to the steps. "Our sister would know, if anyone."

They exchanged silent glances of grief, knowing what was not said aloud. Saiya was not a Healer. But with their mother dead, Saiya, with her acute sensitivity and her head stuffed full with as much lore as Dlen had been able to teach her, was the Isle's best substitute.

"So." Farseeker resumed his slow trek, Whlen beside him. "Going somewhere in particular, or just walking?"

"Up to the hearth room," Farseeker replied, pulling his robe more closely about him. "Get something to eat." He shivered. "And maybe warm up for a while."

Fingertips brushed his cheek. "Your skin's like ice. You sure you don't belong back in bed?"

"Yes." From the corner of his eye, he saw his brother's hand go to the fastenings on his vest. "And, no, adding a layer of your clothes won't help."

Whlen shrugged, reaching over to pat his shoulder. "Can't blame me for trying, little brother."

Whlen's wilingness to let him walk did not extend to letting him fetch his own food. Seated at the table closest to the fire, Farseeker let his gaze wander around the room. It was early yet for an evening meal, but the Isle's two surviving children were eating while their parents warmed their hands with mugs of hot tea. The boy and the girl were obviously arguing about something in low whispers. When they glanced at him, he gave them a smile. They stared at him for a moment, wide-eyed, then jerked their gazes away. His smile faded. Skycloud glowered at him over the him of his mug. Farseeker dropped his gaze to the table, rubbing his aching wrist, which was aching. The attack at the Lake-Holder had shattered the Isle's confidence in its far-walkers. In him. In his ability to locate humans before they could pose danger. He had failed.

**Idiots.** Whlen slid a tray in front of him before seating himself on the opposite side of the table. **Don't try to argue you don't need this—you know the Council agreed that the injured should get full rations.**

Farseeker studied the meal before him. The thick stew of fish and vegetables would be served to everyone. But not everyone would get honey in their tea, nor the rounds of flat-bread. The attack had destroyed the Isle's normal summer routine. Every group of elves venturing ashore afterward had spent far more time watching for humans and far less time foraging. There were fewer elves to feed this winter— but even less food.

Picking up the first piece of bread, Farseeker scooped up some of the stew. He ate stolidly, trying not to think about the food, about his uncomfortably-privileged position, or much of anything at all. He managed successfully enough that he did not notice Vaerrain coming up behind him until her fingers tickled his neck. Starting, he dropped his mug back onto the table, splashing the contents. "Tsk, tsk," said Vaerrain with a soft chuckle, her fingers still working through his hair. "Not very awake this evening, are you?"

Farseeker grimaced to himself. "Please, Vaerrain, don't tease. What do you want?"

She sat down, back to the table, and mock-pouted when he looked at her. "Can't I tease a sometimes fur-mate?" she asked lightly. "Actually, I was wondering if you knew where Flicker was."

Feeling his stomach clench, Farseeker tried not to let his reaction show on his face. "I last spoke to him several days ago. Why do you want him?"

Vaerrain gave him an amused look through lowered eyelashes. "Why do you think, sweetling? Just because he's proven useless for some things doesn't mean he can't do other things."

Deliberately looking away, Farseeker lifted his mug and drank before answering. "I doubt that he is in the mood for bed-games, Vaerrain."

"Don't be silly—he needs a distraction—and I'm the best one to give him one." She leaned closer. "Now tell me where he is?"

Farseeker shook his head. "No." He scooped up another bite of stew and ate it, fully aware of Vaerrain's intense gaze. "Let him be, Vaerrain."

With a little sound of irritation, she stood up. "Since you ask, lovely one. But don't let him brood too long, Farseeker. it's not good for him."

With a sweep of her skirts, she was gone. Farseeker kept eating, though his stomach was still uneasy. Across the table, he felt Whlen watching him, and hoped his brother would not question him.

licker staggered into the main room of the cave, held on his feet by the staff and exhausted will. The faint glow from banked embers in the raised firepit caught his eyes and halted him. Moments passed before the realization that he had reached safety filtered through his thoughts.

Darkness whispered seductively. He swayed before stiffening his legs and increasing his grip on the staff. "No," he muttered out loud. "Can't sleep yet. Build up the fire. Eat something. Clean injuries. Close entrance against predators. Bank fire so it won't go out. Then sleep."

Peering through the dim recesses of the cave, Flicker mentally charted his movements before stirring. Painfully, his left foot dragging, he hobbled towards the back of the cave. At a knee-high ledge that led to smaller room lined by shelves and hooks, he stopped and turned around. Touching the straps crossing his chest, the rockshaper loosened the stone fasteners with a tiny wisp of power, letting the backpack fall to the floor.

The cave had been shaped years before to serve as a shelter for elves on their foraging trips. Some wood had been left stacked in the cave, and Flicker had spent most of the day before gathering more. Working slowly, he built the fire up, then returned to his backpack. Several slices of meat went onto a stone rod already shaped for the purpose. Setting that over the fire, Flicker then filled several pots with water from the tiny waterfall in the back of the cave, setting them on the shaped rock above the flames.

He didn't stop moving until he had filled the largest pot with chunks of meat and chopped roots and dropped dried herbs into another, piled supplies onto his bed, then staggered back to the entrance of the cave to shape enough rock across the narrow opening to hopefully keep large predators out. Hobbling back to the main room, the young elf collapsed more than sat down on the ledge holding his bed furs and blankets. For long moments, he could do nothing more than fight off the wave of dizziness. Tears of pain and exhaustion stung his eyes. He was so tired! So tired and so cold, and it would be so easy just to lie down and let go and who would care if he never woke up again?

But he couldn't—wouldn't. "I - won't - give - in," he whispered hoarsely, forcing himself upright. "They're wrong, I'll prove them wrong."

He forced himself upright with his shaking arm. Pulling a small basket towards him, he flipped off the lid and removed the top cake of travel food. A twinge of guilt touched him as he bit into the chewy slab of ground dried meat, berries, nuts and fat, but he told it to go away. He needed the food, needed it now, and he'd done his share of grinding and mixing since he'd been big enough to move the grinding stones. Even if it was meant mostly for the Pass Watch and the elves allowed to go hunting during the winters -- he'd helped make it, he had only taken his share, and he needed it!

Some of the fog dissapated as he finished. Unknotting the ties holding his left arm immobile, Flicker turned his attention to removing his outer clothes. Strobes of pain lashed him with every movement of his left arm or leg, but he bit back the cries and kept working. The parka was fairly easy to remove, but the leggings were a different problem. Unwinding the bloody bandage, Flicker dulled one side of his knife to protect his skin, then began cutting the leathers away from his leg. It seemed to take forever, and he was sweating by the time he finished. It hurt even more to clean the leg, and he stopped several times to wait for the pain to recede. Finally dropping the cloth, Flicker stared to reach for the small box containing needles and sinew, then hesitated as realization dawned. How was he to sew up his leg with only one hand? The long, ugly slashes running down his leg seemed to double, triple in size as he stared down at them. The long-tooth's claws had struck deep, tearing through the muscles of his leg. He would need one hand to hold the muscles and skin together as he stitched with the other, yet he had only one hand.

The leg-crippling wounds wavered and blurred as tears overflowed his eyes and slid, scalding, down his face. The young elf struggled against the fresh wave of despair, but it rolled over him with relentless strength. All he had accomplished in stealing away from the Isle was to prove the validity of Therin's words. He was useless. A useless coward.

He did not want to see. He did not want to hear. But tightly shut eyes and hands fisted over ears could not prevent the memories from replaying in his mind, over and over again. It had started out such a perfect day! Therin had personally announced to the Isle only three days before that he had earned shore-freedom, and had presented Flicker with a new bow shaped by Diirla and arrows made by Starstone. That bow was clipped to his back even now, though he was hardly going to need it, for today was a great celebration. The massive, gracefully-shaped LakeHolder now barred the exit of the Lake, until it would rise high enough to surge over the lowered center. The Lake would depend and widen, and that was good. Or so he was told, for Flicker didn't really care at the moment. What mattered was the freedom on this lovely, warm summer day to glide up to the massive statue and examine the intricate detailing on the pond-builder. To wonder what it felt like to be in the great shaping merges that had created the Lake-Holder and which had and would continue to change the Isle itself. What mattered was the wind rippling through his hair as he soared back down towards the feast, his little sister riding on his back and laughing.

The food had been wonderful, but though he ate, it barely registered, so filled was he with joy and exuberance. He was in the air, playing tag with other youths, and then he was back on the ground, walking with his mother, following his little sister as she danced through the meadow grasses, pausing at this flower and that, laughing and singing, enjoying the freedom she had never had before. He loitered a little, searching for some flowers of his own to pick for a friend, the sun shining warmly on his head, feeling so good, it was so beautiful, a perfect day—

There was no warning of the mental shock that slammed through his mind and took him to his knees. Flicker cried out as his head blossomed with pain that almost immediately sucked itself into a dark void. Whimpering, both hands braced against his temples, the lad staggered back to his feet, looking around, knowing that something had happened to his mother and sister. But where were they, what had happened, what could have happened?

The answer stepped out from behind the nearby trees. Flicker froze. A hand of human males appeared, two of them holding massive stone axes that dripped with blood. One of the others hefted a heavy, flint-tipped spear, drawing it back. Flicker knew that he was going to die—

"Var's curse take you!"

Flicker found his reality altered as he was flung against a wall. Dazed and breathless, he stared up at the elf standing over him. It was Therin, transformed by fury, the fair hair and festive clothes splattered with blood and things less mentionable. "You saw them before anyone else, didn't you?!" demanded the elder. "You could have warned us, you could have saved lives, but you panicked instead! Didn't you!?" Flicker stared up at Therin, unable to answer.

With a jerk, Therin grabbed his vest, pulled him to his feet, then slammed him against the wall. **Show me what happened--show me!**

Flicker screamed as Therin invaded his mind, knifing through his memories with no thought for care. He screamed again as Therin found that one particular memory— that moment of utter terror and panic, watching the human spear rising, knowing that it was going to seek out his heart and kill him and he didn't want to die, he had to get away, had to escape, get away!

**You!** Flicker could not even scream as the rage and hatred of a man who had lost friends, Recognized and daughter slashed into his defenseless mind. **Gutless, worthless—coward!!** He did not feel the pain as Therin picked him up and threw him against the wall again, or know when the chief hunter managed to control himself enough to settle for dragging Flicker to his feet and pulling him out of the ineffective sanctuary of his room. All he knew was that he was a failure, a weakling, a coward. That he didn't deserve to live.

hlen said nothing as they returned to Farseeker's room. Danaan did not protest as his older brother helped him into bed, too weary to protest the solicitousness. Walking back down the stairs had taken all of his strength, and he was content to be little more than a limp body that Whlen manipulated.

"Flicker's left the Isle, hasn't he?"

Farseeker's eyes snapped open as he started at the question, even though he'd more than half-suspected that Whlen would say something. His brother was sitting on the edge of the bed. Farseeker answered warily, "What makes you think that?"

"He has, hasn't he?" Whlen's midnight gaze met his unwavering, refusing to be misled. Farseeker looked away. "How many days ago?"

"Three," Farseeker admitted reluctantly.

"And when did you know?"

"Before he left."

"And you didn't try to stop him, or tell someone who could stop him."

"No." Silence between them lingered, until Farseeker back up. "Whlen, I couldn't stop him. I'm the one that should be bearing all the blame for this summer, not sharing it with a boy who had just won shore-freedom. Therin's close to destroying the boy. Flicker was desperate to get away, and I didn't just not stop him. I helped him."

Whlen's eyes widened fractionally, then hardened. "Danaan, I know you feel sorry for the boy, but he's a coward." He leaned back, folding his arms across his chest. "You didn't see him when Therin dragged him out of his room where he'd hidden. You didn't watch him crying in front of the survivors trying to deny that he'd panicked. You know how dangerous it is, to be outside in the winter, even with a group. A boy all by himself -- the first danger he faces, he'll panic again, he'll do the wrong thing, and get himself killed."

Farseeker refused to look away. "And have you spoke with him since then, when he's by himself, and not under Therin's eye?" Whlen frowned. "Did you watch his face eight days ago, when he asked for a second chance, when he tried to stand up to Therin. Did you protest when Therin broke his arrows, broke his bow, and told him the only way he'd get to the shore was if the Lake dried up? Did you refuse to join the others, when they turned their backs and left Flicker standing there, alone?"

A muscle bunched in Whlen's jaw. "If he hadn't panicked, our mother and sister might still be alive."

"If he'd frozen in panic and died, they'd still be just as dead."

Whlen blinked. "I don't--"

Pushing himself up, Farseeker leaned forward, sending. **Whlen, please, set aside the grief and think about Flicker's actions. What did he do, in his panic, that was worse than what Vaerrain did the first time she saw humans, all those years ago? Was she named coward? A youngster, staggered by his mother's and sister's deaths, threatened by death with no warning, why are we calling it cowardice, and Vaerrain's reaction not? Because his panic had more immediate, more serious consequences? Are we to drive every youngster who makes a fatal mistake to desperation, turning our backs on them because they're not born perfect?**

**Of course not. But— **

**Did you ever send to Flicker and as for his version of what happened when Therin found him, after the attack?**

**No, again. Why--?**

Farseeker locked his gaze to Whlen's and sent what Flicker had reluctantly shared with him, the day after that last humiliation. The older elf jumped to his feet, going white, as the memories of pain and terror Flicker had felt as Therin clawed through his mind was shared with him. **Haliil's Heart—!—no wonder he so hysterical. But why didn't he go to the Elders. Tinar's his grand-sire--sure he wouldn't have been so angry at the boy as to not listen!**

Farseeker sighed, letting himself slide back down in the bed. **Who was thinking straight back then?** he asked sadly, closing his eyes. **And how easy to persuade a youngster that he's at fault for something -- if everyone you look up to and trust tells you one thing, how likely are you to keep asking someone else if people might be wrong?**

In the silence, Whlen returned to his seated position. **Is he all right?**

Farseeker replied reluctantly. **I—felt something happen today. He's hurt ... I made him promise to send to me if he was hurt beyond his ability to tend. I made sure he went out with a full pack of supplies, and he assured me in sending that Dlen had been satisfied with his skills in heal-crafting.**

**But he hasn't sent.**

**No.**

**Was he planning to go far?**

**No, he agreed to stay close.**

Silence in thoughts between them fell as Whlen closed his mind. Farseeker eased further under the covers, drowsiness clinging to him. After a while, Whlen stood up. Fingers caressed his cheek. Farseeker kept his eyes closed. "You won't tell?" he asked.

"For the moment," Whlen replied, after a pause. "I need to think."

licker woke up with a start as a pungent odor stung his nose. Burning! He started to sit up, then gasped and fell back as his left side screamed in protest. Panting, he stared straight ahead at the hearth with its brightly-burning wood and the blackened strips of meat smoking just above it. Dismayed, he realized that he'd fainted or fallen asleep. Easing up onto his elbow, the youth looked down the length of his body. At the sight of the uncovered, oozing wounds, he remembered what he had been planning, and realized afresh just how difficult—if not impossible—the job was going to be. Despair flickered again, but this time, he drove it off.

Closing his eyes, Flicker thought about what he had already accomplished, and what he needed yet to do. He'd have to leave sewing up his leg until morning, he decided. He was too tired to figure out how to do it now--it was only luck again that the burning meat had roused him. He needed to finish working on his injuries without trying to use the needles, eat some more, then bank the fire to make sure it wouldn't go out until late the next day, if it took him that long to wake up.

And, of course, move the burned meat off the fire so it would stop smoking.

The list of things to do firmly in his mind, the rockshaper pushed himself back to a seated position. Narrowing his eyes, he moved the meat off the fire by the simple method of lifting the rod from its holders with his magic, then shaping one end of the rod into the stones surrounding the fire. With as much care as he could, he bandaged his leg, struggling with right hand and left fore-arm to keep the bandages tight enough the stop the bleeding, yet not so tight that they would harm his leg. The stump of his left wrist looked worse than he remembered, and he quailed at the thought of what Dlen had said needed to be done for that injury. But, again, it was something that would have to be let go until later.

Finding that he had a bit more strength than earlier, Flicker unloaded his backpack, hanging the meat from hooks provided in the alcove, and storing the skins on the highest shelf next to his bloody parka and ruined leggings. Slicing more of the meat into a bowl, he chewed on the raw flesh as he checked on the stew, added some water to it and eased it back from the fire a trifle. The tea was strong enough to gag on, but he swallowed it anyway.

He finally allowed himself to burrow into the bed he'd made, still munching on the last of the additional half-cake he'd allowed himself from the travel supplies. Curled up on his right side, he rubbed his face, feeling the exhaustion ooze up around him despite the insistent throbbing of his arm and thigh. Part of him wanted to fret about the next day, but he was simply too tired. Eying the fire and hoping he'd built it well enough to last, Flicker sighed and closed his eyes. What was it Cliffclimber had said that first summer? Don't worry about the past and past mistakes when you're on the hunt; don't think about tomorrow. Just be eyes and ears and nose and a body ready to react. Just concentrate on the moment. On now ...

He slept.

 

ost of the elves were gathered in the Star Room. Flicker hid in the shadow of a column, watching as Therin strode to the center and stepped up onto the ledge surrounding the circular hearth. The sussuration of low voices died as he swept the crowd with his gaze.

"Listen up, everyone," he ordered. "The Council has agreed to let me lead a hunt—there's not enough meat in the store-rooms to last until ice-break, even if some of us go on short rations. Farseeker says there's a larger than normal herd of long-horns to the south, and since he's never yet been wrong about that—" Several soft growls answered the scorn in that last word. "—that's where we're going. We should be gone about three hands of days. Now who wants to come?" The chief hunter looked around. "Whlen?"

The dark-haired elf shook his head. "I think I'd better stay here this time. Farseeker needs someone to make sure he doesn't push himself too hard, and Morningstar has enough on her hands without taking care of him as well."

Therin snorted. "You coddle your brother too much, Whlen. You should let him take care of himself for a while."

"You may not have noticed, but most of the time he does," Whlen responded mildly. "But he's still weak and in pain, and I'm not going to leave him."

> Flicker bit his lip as Therin gave a shrug and turned his back. He had so hoped that the permission to hunt—which everyone had been expecting —would improve Therin's temper. It obviously hadn't.

"I'll go." Flicker shifted his position and watched as Cliffclimber stood up. "I think—"

"You're not going," Therin snapped, interrupting her. "You're pregnant."

"Only for two moons," she snapped. "It's hardly going to slow me down yet."

"I'm not risking anyone who's pregnant. You're staying here—and the Council will back me up." The slender maiden sat down, scowling. One or two others spoke up, clearly less than enthusiastic. Silence fell. Flicker swallowed hard, then stepped out of the shadows and walked towards the fire-circle. "I'll go."

Therin whirled. "You?!" Flicker willed himself not to tremble under Therin's glower. "What are you doing here, Coward?"

"You sent for the hunters to come," Flicker replied, meeting Therin's glare. "I'm a hunter—I gained shore-freedom last summer; I went out last winter with a group, and Cliffclimber said I did well. I want to go."

"And you lost your rights to shore-freedom last summer as well, or is your memory as feeble as your courage?" sneered Therin.

Flicker flushed, then paled. "You-you didn't say that. You called me a coward, and useless, and—and a lot of other things. I-I know I panicked, when Mother and Fawn died, and—and maybe as many elves wouldn't have died if I'd only managed to warn you. But I don't want to be useless, and I-I'm sure I can do better—please, Therin. And it's-it's not like you're going to be hunting humans. I just want another chance. Please."

Therin glared down at him. The other elves were silent, but Flicker felt their eyes on him. Part of him wanted to run away and hide from those eyes, and his stomach hurt. But he forced himself not to move, and not to look away. He had to face them. He didn't want to be called 'Coward' the rest of his life. He had to prove he could be brave.

"So where are your weapons?"

Flicker blinked at the totally unexpected question. "My weapons?"

"You weren't planning on taking down long-horns bare-handed, were you?"

The sneer brought fresh blood to his cheeks. "Of course not," he replied. "They're in my room."

Get them."

Flicker stared up at the Hunt Leader, puzzled. "But, why--?"

"That's an order, Coward--or do you really not want to go?"

"Of course I want to go!"

"Then, go - get - them."

Flicker turned on his heel and sprang into the air. Darting into the nearest corridor, he sped through the twisting shortcuts, puzzled but now without a little hope. He didn't understand why Therin wanted to see his weaponry, but surely there was a good reason. Slipping through the drapery, the young elf gathered up the quiver of javelins, the spear-thrower, and his two knives. The bow and arrows he left behind. One didn't hunt long-horn in wintertime with arrows. Panting a little, he landed in front of the fire-hearth. Therin hadn't moved. Flicker looked up at him. Therin gazed coldly back. "Where is your bow and arrows?"

"I -- thought you wanted the weapons I would take on this hunting trip," Flicker replied uncertainly. "I haven't used the spear-thrower in a hunt yet, but I've been practicing with mother's thrower for years. She said when Fawn was born that—" he swallowed against a sudden knot of grief, "—that I could use her weapons until Fawn grew up."

"All the weapons, Coward. All of them."

The little hope began to die. Setting the quiver of javelins carefully against a seat, making sure the fletched feathers weren't in contact with anything, Flicker sped out of the hall. He made the trip more slowly the second time, returning with the bow in his hand and the quiver slung over one shoulder. The bow was unstrung, gleaming from all the nights he had spent rubbing the wood with an oily rag, as he sat lonely in the room once shared with his mother and half-sister, grieving for their loss and promising their spirits that he would find a way to make them proud of him.

"Give them here," growled Therin. Flicker hesitated, then, at an impatient gesture from the older elf, surrended the bow and quiver. The Hunt Leader examined the bow closely. "Diirla's shaping?"

Flicker nodded. "Yes. And the arrows were made by Starstone." Eight perfect arrows, eight keen-edged, sleek heads made from the sky-fallen rock. The last eight arrows she had ever made. That was another reason he had thought to take the javelins. He wasn't sure he was ready to risk losing or breaking those beautiful arrows.

Therin shouldered the quiver. "Starstone's arrows are too perfect to lose. But the bow—" Taking the bow in both hands, he raised his leg and broke the weapon over his knee.

"No!" Far too late, Flicker lunged forward. "Don't!" Therin backhanded him, sending him flying. With a savage twist of his body, Flicker managed to avoid slamming into one of the furred benches. He bounced into the air, in time to see Therin picking up the quiver of javelins and the spear-thrower, his broken bow already in the fire. "Stop it!" He lunged for the weapons, grabbing them. "They're mine!"

Therin let go, causing Flicker to stagger off-balance. Before the young elf could recover, Therin was on him, spinning him around and sending him into the side of the hearth, then pulling him up and slamming his head and shoulders onto the ledge of rock.

"You listen to me, Coward," snarled Therin, leaning over the trapped lad, one hand twisted about the neckline of Flicker's vest. "I am the Hunt Leader. I say who has shore-freedom and who has not. I take no coward with me on any hunt, warm weather or cold. I give no shore-freedom to a coward so gutless he'll flee rather than even warn his people, let alone fight for them. If I had my way, I'd kick your worthless tail out of the Isle, to live or die for all I care, but the Council's too tender-hearted for that. So you can keep your warm room and your pretty clothes, while your betters risk their hides in a winter hunt, and when they come back in, you can beg them to let you serve them, and do just a little to justify the food you eat and the clothes you wear! You understand all that--Coward!"

Flicker looked up at Therin through tears of pain and desperation. "No! Please! Please, Therin!" he begged. "I just want another chance! I--I'm not a coward -- I-I know I'm not!"

"No?" Therin's hand loosened its grip from his vest, then lashed out and grabbed Flicker's left wrist, and plunged it into the fire. Agony ran up his hand, and Flicker screamed, struggling madly to pull free. Therin released him, and he rolled away from the fire, staggering to his feet, then falling to his knees, clutching his burned hand to his chest, shaking with sobs. Distantly, he heard Therin say something, but the pain in heart and hand were too great to listen. By the time he had his sobs under control and looked up, the room was empty, and silent, save for the fire crackling as it consumed his bow, his spear-thrower, and his javelins.

 

The shaking was just barely gentle. Farseeker tried to move away, then groaned as his ribs protested. **Sorry, brother,** sent Whlen, **but the hunt just got back, and Therin's in a temper, looking for Flicker. I think everyone's about to realize that Flicker's left, so you'd better wake up and be prepared.**

Farseeker pushed himself up. **When is it?**

"Mid-morning." Farseeker snapped his head up as he realized he'd overslept. Whlen gave him a one-sided, amused grin.

"The hunt was close-enough to group-send and let Tinar know they were on their way back in," he said. "So I assume Tinar decided to let you sleep."

With a small grunt of displeasure, Farseeker flicked the covers back with a mental touch, then reconsidered and pulled himself to his feet physically. Whlen chuckled as he helped steady his brother. "Remembering what little sister told you?" He handed Farseeker his clothes.

"For all the good it does me. It's not like I have to worry about facing bears or humans."

"Except when you do." Farseeker grimaced at the reminder. "More seriously though, brother..." He looked up. "... I'd get to Tinar before Therin does, and tell him what you know." Farseeker frowned, starting to shake his head, but Whlen continued quickly.

"I spent the night thinking about what you told me, Danaan," he continued, dark eyes troubled. "I don't know what to think about young Flicker, but Therin's first attack was wrong. Tinar knows what it's like to be hurt that way—and the lad is his grandson, come to that. But you need to get there before Therin gets him to agree to something rash—like hunting the boy down and dragging him back to the Isle."

Farseeker winced and dressed more rapidly, dragging the comb through his hair barely enough times to remove the night's accumulation of snarls before gliding towards the entrance of his room. He moved quickly, much faster than his usual, leaving the slower Whlen behind him. As it was, he saw Therin striding through the draperies of the Eldests' quarters. With a last little bit of speed, Farseeker landed in front of the entrance moments later and walked in, not bothering with touching the chimes. The eyes of the Council focused on him. Therin chopped off in mid-syllable, spinning to face him. The Hunt Leader looked surprised for a moment, then smiled thinly.

"Good-morning, grandson," he said. "I was hoping you would be up here with the Elders."

Farseeker raised an eyebrow but said nothing, studying his maternal grandfather. His mother's description of her father never had matched his own experiences, but all of the elder folk said that Therin's temper had soured since the death of his lifemate Maka. There had been fervent hope that Sharpgrass' Recognition with him would mellow the Hunt Leader, but that hope was gone. He was a superb hunter and organizer, and no one save Whlen could outfight him. But he had no patience for mistakes, and he was never asked to mentor the youngsters in their first years ashore.

When Farseeker failed to answer, Therin shrugged, turning his attention back to the three elders. "I'm looking for Flicker," he stated. "I told him before I left that I expected him to be available to run errands for us when we returned. "I've sent for him and he doesn't answer. If he's going to be worth his food and clothing, he needs to stop sulking and start working."

The four glanced at each other. "I've not seen him," Diirla said slowly, "except the day after you left: he was talking to Morningstar about something. His hand was bandaged..."

"Because Therin burned it," Farseeker put in quietly.

Three of the four froze, staring at him, then switched their gazes to the hunter. His weather-burned face darkened. "I was only proving to him that he was a coward—a little touch of flame and he screamed like a baby."

"I'd probably scream, too, if someone thrust my hand into fire without warning," said Farseeker, folding his arms across his chest.

The elders' expressions turned disapproving. Therin shifted his stance. "Maybe I went too far," he conceded, "but the boy was whining for a 'another chance', as he called it, and he wouldn't take no for an answer. I'm not taking cowards out on hunts with me, so they can get someone else killed."

"But it wouldn't bother you if a coward got just himself killed."

Therin spun, crouching slightly as if expecting attack. "And what in Haliil's Heart is that supposed to mean?" he demanded. "I don't want any elf to die!"

"That's not what you told Flicker," Farseeker returned icily. "You told him that if you had your way, you'd kick his worthless tail out of the Isle, to live or die for all you cared."

Therin's face turned purple. "I—I was angry!" he snapped finally. "I didn't mean it!"

"That he was useless, or that you wanted to kick him out of the Isle?" asked Aerva.

"That I wanted to throw him out," Therin replied quickly. "One assumes he'll find a way to make himself useful, once he stops sniveling and feeling sorry for himself." He shrugged his shoulders, straightening. "He's closed his mind to me, but I assume you, at least, can find him."

Farseeker took a deep breath. "Flicker is not in the Isle."

licker stared at the embers, wondering dully when it was. He hadn't slept well, snapping out of sleep again and again as every twitch in his body triggered a spasm of agony up his leg or his arm. Twice, he'd gotten up brew some pain-ease, but he'd been scared to put too much in. So it hadn't seemed to help much.

But he had slept, and the fire was low enough it needed tending. Slowly, he leveraged himself up to a seated position, gritting his teeth against every white-hot streak of pain. Fully upright, he paused for a few seconds, panting, then pulled his legs out of the warm cocoon of blankets and furs. Wiping the sweat off his face, Flicker leaned over to examine the bandages on his wounded leg.

His heart sank. The material was soaked through, damp to the touch. The bleeding hadn't stopped. If he couldn't stop the bleeding, he'd die. Shutting his eyes, Flicker fought to face that awareness squarely. He didn't want to die. Not when he hadn't really begun to live yet. As much as it hurt knowing his mother was dead, that his little sister was dead; as painful as it was having almost every elf in the Isle look down on him as a coward and a failure, he didn't want to become just spirit. But if he wasn't going to die, he was going to have to somehow stab himself with needles, somehow close the long wounds using only one hand ...

ow long it took, he never knew. It might have been days, or less than an an eighth-part, before he collapsed in his furs, shaking and crying in exhausted pain, only one of the four gashes sewn up, and that so badly that he knew it wouldn't help. He had failed, again.

Why had he been so stupid as to face that cat, he wondered, despairing. He could have so easily just jumped into the air and escaped. Why had he thought he had to test his courage by facing a dangerous predator when he didn't need to?

Flicker opened his eyes, staring at the fire. It had been stupid to face the cat. So why had he stood his ground with his spear—with the one weapon he had little experience with? When he had heard the low growl, and spun around to see the cat crouching, less than two elf-lengths away, he had felt a flood of fear, of terror. The next moment, he had felt shame, to feel that fear. But, why? Was it wrong to feel fear? What was courage?

He twisted his head around to study his injured leg. He had thought leaving the Isle in mid-winter, in proving that he could survive on his own, would prove that he was brave. But would it have, really? Or had he just been foolish, ignoring how easy it was for one person to die? Elves died while hunting, even though they were part of groups. Even if he hadn't been injured, even if he had succeeded in surviving the winter, would Therin and the others really change their minds about him? Would it change his own mind?

Not that it made any difference now. Flicker watched a bead of blood gather around one of the spots of the sewn gash where the flesh didn't quite match. It grew a little larger, then began to slide down his leg, leaving a glistening trail. He only had two choices left. He could wrap up his leg again, hoping that the bleeding would quit, hoping that wrist would heal, and probably die of blood-loss, or, if he was unlucky, of wound-fever. Or, he could call Farseeker, and ask for someone to come out and tend his injuries, then carry him back to the Isle.

And then what? Did he want—would he be able—to live with the consequences? Of having elves sneer at him as a coward? Of watching others younger than himself gain the pleasures and dangers of shore-freedom, while he remained bound to the Isle? Of being at the beck and call of those who considered themselves his betters?

Flicker scrubbed the tears from his face with the palm of his hand. If he didn't care to simply give up and die, then there was no choice left. It was going to be horrid going back. But, if he was alive, then maybe, someday, he could find a way to earn another chance. He could always hope.

On that faint comfort, he closed his eyes and began to send.

arseeker waited patiently for the initial indignation to die down, ignoring the half-spluttered questions and exclamations. Tinar finally took the conversational lead, settling himself in his chair, his dark eyes smoldering.

"So Flicker is outside the Isle, without permission," he stated. "When did you know, and why haven't you told us before?"

Farseeker sighed and shifted his weight. "Flicker left four days ago. I found him in the Heal-crafter room, packing supplies. After talking with him, I agreed he should go and I helped him pick out what he should take." He paused, watching their astonished expressions, then added gently, "Flicker has been repeatedly humiliated for a quarter-turn of seasons, been the focus of more hatred and scorn than any young elf should have to withstand. He hasn't discovered his inner strength yet, and he was desperate. I didn't like his plan, but I feared what he might do if I stopped him."

"What he might do?" echoed Aerva, her brow furrowed.

Farseeker centered his attention on her lifemate. "He's your grand-son, Tinar. You know what it must have felt like, having Therin attack his mind. You know the pain of broken dreams."

Tinar didn't quite turn as pale as his hair. No one spoke for a little while, then Vaerrain stirred.

"We don't want anything to happen to Flicker, but surely there's a better alternative than letting him risk his life living alone outside in the middle of winter. If he panics again, it could be his life this time."

"At least it'll only be his," remarked Therin acidly. The four Elders glared at him, but the Hunt Leader only shrugged, a slight sneer on his face. Farseeker frowned at him, then stiffened as something touched him. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on 'listening'.

"Flicker ..." he breathed. He gathered his strength to return the sending, anxiously aware of how weak his own mental strength still was. Flicker felt so far away...

Hands grasped his upper arms. **Sit down,** sent Vaerrain, moving him bodily, **and lock minds with me. I'll lend you my strength.**

The weight coming off his legs was a relief. Fingers spread across his temples, and then he was flooded with warmth. Feeling stronger than he had in moons, Farseeker reached quickly and surely towards the faint sending star. **Flicker!**

**Farseeker! Thank the High Ones!**

**What is it, lad? Is something wrong?**

**I—**, the sending wavered a moment, then strengthened. **I have to come back in. It was wrong to come out here, and ... I-I did a very stupid thing, thinking I was being brave. I'm hurt, and I can't stop the bleeding in my leg. I'm going to need help to get back in.**

**How badly are you hurt?**

**My left thigh, and—my left hand. It's—gone.**

Farseeker flinched in horror, then forced himself to go on. **Where are you?**

**In Little Bear cave, the one we agreed on. I-I probably should have sent to you last night, but I thought I'd be able to tend myself. I tried, but— one-handed, I just can't. If I stay out here alone, I'll probably bleed to death or get wound-fever ... and and I'm not ready to die. Even if it means going back and having everybody sneer at me for a coward.**

The woebegone sending sparked the burn of tears. **It takes courage to admit failure, lad,** sent Farseeker gently, **sometimes more than it takes to face dying. Keep yourself warm, don't move around more than you have to. I'll get someone out there.**

licker opened his eyes. The ceiling above was swirled into intricate curlicues, glinting here and there with reflected light. It was definitely not the ceiling of the cave. It also wasn't the ceiling of his room. He frowned at it, puzzled. A regular creaking sound came to a halt.

"You're in the Healer's room, lad," said a soft voice from his right. "You've been back for about a day."

The young elf turned his head slowly. Sitting in a shaped-wood rocker, the slender, fire-haired far-walker smiled at him. "Morningstar thought you should be awakening by now. She also said you would be thirsty?"

Flicker ran his tongue over chapped lips. "I—yes." A bit of motion caused him to turn his head further, in time to see a spindle and a puff of plant fiber descending gracefully to a nearby table. "I—didn't know you spun."

Farseeker chuckled as he walked out of Flicker's view. "I have to have more to do during the summers than keep my mind open for the folk running around the Valley. I also weave—though just with a hand-loom. I fear I lack the patience to work with the large looms."

Blinking, Flicker turned his head to stare up at the ceiling. Moving his right hand, he felt under the covers for his left arm. It was bound across his chest, and it ended too soon. "My ... hand..." he whispered.

"Is gone, Flicker." Farseeker slid a hand behind the lad's head and helped him drink. Setting the cup on a narrow shelf, he settled himself on the edge of the bed. "Morningstar thinks your leg will mend."

"How did I—get back here? I don't—remember ... I fell asleep, after sending to you—I tried to stay awake..."

"You were asleep when Morningstar and the others arrived at the cave. She gave you a drink to keep you asleep. She and Zarill worked on your injuries there, then brought you back the next day."

Flicker closed his eyes, touching the bandages covering the end of his left arm. He remembered the moment when the humans had come out of the trees, and that moment when he had turned to face the long-tooth. Two moments of fear and terror. One had led to loss of respect by the entire Isle. The other had led to the loss of his physical wholeness. He had finally made a right decision, to return to the Isle and admit his failures, but what would come of him now? He was no crafter, no creator of beauty: he admired what others did, but there was no spark of that creativity in his own soul. What he wanted were the forests and meadows; the keen wind in his face, the excitement of the chase; the feel of his body pushed to find its physical limits. What he wanted was what he had had for less than three short summers. Lost because of one moment of cowardice, and another of foolishness. Oh, it made sense to live, sense to hope. But for what? For what could he hope? Where would he look for joy, for friendship and love, when he was naught but a coward and a fool?

The bed shifted as Farseeker stood up. Flicker's eyes stung and tears flowed, thinking that even the far-walker would have no more to do with him than necessary. Averted faces, abandoned friendships—deserved, yes, for what he had done. But it hurt. Oh, how it hurt!

A weight fell on his chest with a clink of metal. Snapping his eyes open, Flicker looked and saw a heap of gold, red-streaked dark-green, and yellowish-gray-white. Pulling his remaining hand out from beneath the covers, Flicker picked up the object, and caught his breath in shock. It was a necklace of claws, interspersed with intricate beads of bloodstone and gold. The claws were huge, and could have come only from one beast. But how? And why?

**I may have been wrong.**

The heavy necklace slipped from his numb fingers as Flicker looked up and suffered fresh shock. Therin stood beside the bed, arms folded across his chest, face expressionless. **I am still of the opinion that cowardice caused you to panic and flee. And it was an act of senseless bravado to face long-tooth alone, with only a thrusting spear and a knife.** Therin's eyes hardened for a moment. Flicker swallowed and tried not to flinch. **But the Eldests and Farseeker have all argued that I have treated you too harshly, letting my own grief and pain have too much control over my deeds. They have wisdom I lack: I must consider their words. There is also this ... I would not have thought any elf could go up against a long-tooth with only a broken spear and a knife, and somehow win, with no more injuries than you suffered. That suggests abilities I would not care to waste ...**

Flicker dared barely breath. "Does that mean ... you'll give me another chance to earn shore-freedom?"

Bitterness and anger flickered across Therin's face, but only for a moment. His eyes shifted to where Flicker's left arm lay hidden. **You will have to heal, and then you will have to learn how to compensate for only one hand. I am—unwilling—to trust someone who panics, yet you must have some bit of courage, to admit your failures and ask for help, as Farseeker says you have done. When and if you find two mentors acceptable to the Council ... I will not stand in your way.**

He left. Flicker watched him go, then picked up the necklace with a trembling hand, feeling dazed. He had the chance he wanted, after he had thought the possibility gone. And this necklace—as magnificent as any he'd seen, but how and why?

"Therin made that necklace by way of apology," commented Farseeker, returning back into view. "He's not good at apologies, you know."

"It's—beautiful," Flicker whispered. "But where did the claws—"

"Whlen hunted down the carcass while the others rested," Farseeker replied, sitting down at the edge of the bed again. "He also brought back the fangs, and of course, the fur. Those are yours." He smiled faintly. "Better be warned, lad. There'll be competition for your bed, just for the chance to get those as presents."

"Me? Elves will want me for a fur-mate?" Flicker gaped at Farseeker, disbelieving. Farseeker's eyes twinkled, but his expression sobered.

"Many people think courage has only to do with physical threats," he replied. "Most of the Isle was quite willing to believe your panic proved you were a coward—if only to have another person to blame for the disaster. They're not sure what to think, after you faced a long-tooth and slew it. They're apt to see that as brave, rather than possibly panicking from a different form of fear —the fear of appearing to be a coward. Now, you're a puzzle—and what better entertainment during the cold season, than to pursue that puzzle?"

Flicker stared at the far-walker, a bit puzzled by some of what he had said, though sensing deeper truths in those words that would be important to him. "Farseeker ... what do you think of me?"

"I?" Farseeker sank down on the edge of the bed, his midmight-blue eyes watching him. "I think you have more courage than anyone now guesses," he said after a long pause. "I don't think you should be despised for panicking—even our fearless Vaerrain panicked the first time she encountered humans. You've made mistakes: you have suffered for them, and will continue to suffer." His expression softened, and he leaned forward slightly. "But I believe there is great heart in you, can you but learn to grow into it. You need not be stopped from your goals by your failures, or by loss of one hand. And ... I would be pleased to call you friend."

Flicker lowered his hand back to his chest, freshly astonished. That the far-walker would help him leave the Isle had been astonishing enough, but that he would desire friendship with a lad like himself? The elf who fearlessly walked in the spirit world, who could look into the eyes of a child and predict their magic, wanting the friendship of an elf with no higher ambitions than to be a hunter?

He wanted to deny what the other was implying. But as he stared back at the shadowed, midnight eyes, set in the pale face that revealed the strain of the last quarter turn, he realized that Farseeker was—lonely. He remembered that Farseeker had also lost sister and mother. That Farseeker had been, even more than himself, the focus of the Isle's rage and grief. There was common ground between them. Common grief ... common understanding? Farseeker had risked further anger by helping him; helping him even though he had disagreed with him.

No one ever talked about Farseeker's courage. As if it took no courage to separate body and spirit? Or no courage to face the ill will of the Council?

Flicker extended his hand with a sense of wonder. With a look of surprise and pleasure, Farseeker touched fingers. A vision flashed, from his mind or the far-walker's, Flicker didn't know. The snow would turn red at his feet again; his life would know suffering and grief, and an ending and beginning while fighting for those he loved. But his life would also know joy and love, the caring of true compassion and the quite pride of true courage.

It would be enough.

Even with only one hand.