ould I ever laugh again?
I set on my bed, and felt--nothing. The fighting was over, the humans were gone, and I was yet alive. But I felt neither relief nor joy. I could only sit there, still in my worn, stained parka, and stare sightlessly at the wall. Once, early in the fighting, I had dreamed of what I would do when I returned to the Isle. I would partake of the luxuries not possible on the shore: the pools of water, warmed by the heat of the world's interior. To feel the smooth slide of plant-silk and the soft warmth of wool, rather than fur and leather. To taste food of subtlety and richness that took a long half-day to prepare. To play games. To laugh and sing, heedless of sound, rather than as a spider on a web, silent, and aware. And, most of all, to be with Tharol again--! To feel his touch on my skin and within me; to twine ever more closely with his soul, to be together, in this room, in this bed--
Except that he would never return. His body was gone--dead. Killed by humans. Tinar had informed me of this one night, when he had projected himself into the small underground cave that was our base. I had known, of course, that my other half was departed. Except--I had not wanted to believe.
And I could not mourn. Then, there hadn't been time. For the sake of the Isle, everything but the need to secure our safety had to be set aside. I knew my value to the effort. And so, I forced myself not to think on him. I refused to let myself even consider trying to follow him. Humans, not elves, had to die. And I -- who had revered life as much as did any elf -- I; I made sure that they died. But now--
"Grandmother? Please, may I come in?"
The voice of my youngest grandchild broke through my mindless reverie. Blinking, I glanced towards the thick drapes that gave this room its privacy. For a moment, becoming aware that I had not yet even removed my soiled, outer clothes, I wanted to refuse. But then, her voice came again. "Please, Grandmother--I-I need someone to talk with!" The ache in her voice brought a sudden stab of pain to me. How could I possibly refuse to see a child? Sliding off the bed, I walked to the draperies and parted them. I looked down, but not as far as I would have expected. Darter looked up at me, her dark blue eyes brimming with tears, her no-longer childish body trembling. I hesitated, then reached out with my--still gloved--hand, and touched her face.
"Oh, Grandmother!" Abruptly, she threw herself against me, hugging me as if she never wanted to let go. "Oh, grandmother, you came back! I've been so afraid, even these last two moons, that you'd be killed, too! Just like mother and father, and grandfather Tharol! It's been so--so horrible!
She was shaking violently from a storm of tears as I returned her embrace, removing one glove to be able to stroke her long, straight, black hair. Yes, it had been a horrible time for all of us, but perhaps most of all for the children. They had been kept safe within the Isle. Safe, and helpless, while their parents risked their lives and died. And then, near the end, even the Isle had not proven safe, and two of their small number had died.
I guided Darter inside with me, then sat down on the bed with her. For a moment, I envied the swirling, jangled emotions I sensed. Where were mine? My sorrow? Or bitterness, anger, or even hatred? Why couldn't I touch them? Would I never be what I was before all these years of fighting?
Eventually, Darter began to sniff back her tears. Dashing her hand across her eyes, she eased out of our embrace. "Dwan, I--" she stopped, staring at me for a moment, looking just a little bit frightened. "Grandmother, why haven't you changed your clothes yet? I-I didn't come right away, because I thought you would want time to clean up!"
I looked away, vaguely ashamed of my disarray. My daughter's daughter should not have to view her grandmother in such careless state. How could I help her, when I obviously could not even help myself?
"Oh, grandmother!" I forced myself to look back, to discover her eyes glittering with tears again. "Please, don't be upset! It must have been a lot worse for you -- let me help you!" She reached for the hand that was still gloved. "Please let me help!"
"You needed to talk, you said," I managed to say. She nodded.
"Oh, yes, but I can wait! Please? I want to help you--please!"
What could I say?
t was, in fact, pleasant to be tended, in that part of me that was aware of such things. It was pleasant to have quick, soft hands teasing off the dirty, smelly leathers and to be wrapped within a soft, woven robe. More pleasant was the heated water--it was pleasant to be immersed in that wonderful warmth, while quick hands unbraided my hair and massaged my scalp. I watched Darter as she sped away from the bathing room to fetch food and drink. She was so quick, so light. I knew that I regretted the years I had missed, of her growing up. And such a terrible time to grow up, during the years of constant killing and dying. I wondered what her problem was.
I could have asked her, but I did not, and she said nothing of it, as she stood over me and made me eat. We walked back to my room, and my thoughts flinched away again, as I remembered what I had almost set aside. That my Tharol, my other self, was gone. Gone...
We talked, or rather, Darter talked and I listened. She had only been a child when the elves going to the Pass had been surprised and overcome, the gathered human tribes pouring into the Valley. Unable to directly confront so many, we had used the only tactics open to us, splitting into small groups, using stealth, speed, and knowledge of the Valley to strike quickly and vanish, depending on wearing down flesh and spirit to win. We had succeeded. But, oh--!--the cost to ourselves and our beloved Valley! And to our children. I listened as she told of her fears and her nightmares--fears and nightmares she had only been able to share with the other children. The few adults remaining within the Isle had been, for the most part, too distracted and too busy. She spoke of the ways they had spent their time, giving what help they could, whether packing supplies, or running errands for the injured elves who managed to get back to the Isle to heal. They had grown up with fear during those years; with uncertainty, and with loneliness.
And yet, even now that the fighting was over and the surviving humans mostly departed, the barely remembered but yearned-for normality had not returned. Darter spoke of the meetings between children and their surviving parents, and how a child's joy over the return changed to bewilderment and hurt, as the old elf returned the greetings with something far less than joy. The look on their faces and in their bodies had been beyond the understanding of the children, except that--somehow--the fighting was not over. And that things had changed, perhaps forever. The children, who had been drifting apart, found themselves still needing each other. They had learned that only they seemed to have time for each other, and that only they had not changed, from the time of departure to the time of return.
When Darter wore herself out talking and fell asleep, I tucked her beneath the furs, then left, unable to be still within that room. Walking the halls, my mind kept drifting away from memories and thoughts, yet always returning to them. If only Tharol were still with me! And yet, how much could we share; what joy could we find, with the Isle as it was? I was no Elder, no Healer. And yet, I could not be deaf and unaware of the atmosphere within, for it was far too much like my own feelings. There was despair and grief--not hot and sharp in a way to be released by tears and crying out. Rather, it was dull and heavy: turgid, weighed down by hopelessness and anger. We might have as well lost the fighting, instead of won. And what had we won? The Valley was burned and scarred: devastated. It would be years before it returned to its former lush fertility. The Lake might be in less sad shape, but the humans had done their best to foul it. As for ourselves, I did not want to know just how many had died. But many. Far too many. Our recovery in numbers would be far slower than the Valley. Assuming the will could even be found.
I found myself wandering outside on the top of the Isle. The night was bitter cold though windless. The lake was endless dark where the edges had not formed ice. Staring toward the silver and black mountains, I found my thoughts drifting inexorably back to the memories of the past few years. For they were memories that seemed more real--however nightmarish--than all the unnumbered years before. The first moons had not been so bad, despite the horror of our losses from the Pass. We had been alive then, surpremely aware of our physical selves, sharing freely to celebrate what we risked losing. But as the seasons came and went; as the humans fought with fiendish determination never before seen; as one elf after another died--horribly, if ill-fated enough to come alive into five-fingered hands--the sharing became too painful. It grew difficult to love--only ever more easy to hate. But not a hot, unthinking hatred, for that led only to dying. What we shared was cold and deep--and pitiless. We had but one thought. One goal. The destruction of the humans. The massive pit-trap I and five others spent a sleepless half-moon shaping, working against time before the humans might move their camp ... When the ground caved in beneath their fires and tents, sending perhaps ten hands of men, women and children screaming to their deaths ... All I could see was the memory of one of my best friends impaled on a human spear, screaming as the laughing humans mutilated him, while I had been helpless, unable to do more than hope that they would not see me, clinging to a tree limb above their heads--
A rising snarl that was not elfin spun me around, a slender shaft of rock snapping up into my hands for a weapon. The other two drew back, and the one in elfin form spoke quickly. "Gently, Dwan. We did not mean to surprise you."
"Farseeker." Taking a deep breath, I dropped the lance and smoothed the substance into the ground. "I was not ... paying attention." Vaguely embarrassed to have threatened the farwalker who could barely be half-healed yet of his injuries, I glanced at his companion. It--or rather, he--snarled again, tossing a furred, fanged head with tormented elfin eyes. It could only be Whlen, whom I had heard had disappeared. It seemed he had returned -- but why had he not changed back, at least more than a little way?
"He cannot discover the inner peace and concentration necessary to change," said Farseeker, answering my unspoken question. "The feelings are distracting him." He sighed. "I had hoped they would be less intense up here--"
Whlen leapt forward, clawed forelimbs landing on my shoulders, knocking me down. His eyes sought mine and I cried out as he emotions swept through my mind. Confusion - fear - hate - blood-lust - hunger -- pain! Against that uproar, a voice seemed to come from a great distance, pleading; drowning in the turbulence. **Help me! Help me find who I am, to remember! Help me! Help me!**
**Whlen!** Farseeker's mind sliced through the desperate sending, blocking it from my awareness. With a howl of rage, the cat-elf leapt back, snarling, turned, and leapt on his brother. Farseeker went down, crying out with pain. Somehow, he managed to avoid the fangs and fling his arms around the cat's thick neck, sending with such strength that the air turned thick. Scrambling to my feet, I watched as Whlen's cat-body crouched, his snarls fading to a curious-sounding moan of pain. Shivering, I tried to image what is was like to go about in a different shape, and was glad I had not that talent.
Whlen finally eased back far enough for his brother to sit up, clinging to the cat's neck now for support. Tilting his blinded, bandaged face toward me, the farwalker spoke in a voice shaking with pain. "Whlen did not mean to attack you, Dwan. Please forgive him. He grows desperate. He fears the shaping was done too well; that he will be unable to return to his former shape. Are you hurt?"
"I am uninjured," I assured him. Feeling colder than the wind, I rubbed my arms. "Cannot the Elders help him?"
Farseeker leaned his head against his brother, while Whlen purred and extended a foreleg as if to embrace him. "No," he said, barely audible. "They have tried and failed. The Eldests do not know how to help him, anymore than they know how to stop everyone from thinking about killing and hating."
Dull anger flared within me--anger I knew was unreasonable even as I felt it. "How could they?" I asked, turning away. How could you? I added --contemptuously--in my mind. "They did not fight. They did not risk their lives." They only told us what to do, I added to myself, remembering Tinar's emotionless accounting of my lifemate's death.
"They had no choice!" cried Farseeker, echoed by a muttered growl. "We could not risk the loss of their memories, their knowledge! It was not their decision! They more than did their part! But now you--and every fighter I have spoken with--voice this resentment of them, for no reason that I can understand!"
I was not sure that I did. It wasn't logical, I knew. I also knew that we could not have let them physically risk themselves. They were simply too important. And yet-- "They didn't share," I said slowly, trying to work it out. "They didn't go through what we have. All these seasons of fighting--hurting--hating. I--I know that they have their own memories of fighting against humans, of being hurt, and of hating, but--it's not the same. How can they help us, then? How can they tell us what to do?"
Whlen eased back as Farseeker rose, then crowded close to his legs. Floating a hand-span off the surface, the injured farwalker drew his hood back on without using his hands. Watching him, I felt a surge of irritation. His injuries had not been obtained while bravely fighting, but while experiencing a short but tortuous captivity that rumor--undenied by Tinar--had as willingly entered. That that episode had --apparently--somehow played a direct role in ending the fighting, no one could disagree with. But the consensus was that the fire-haired elder was not exactly sane.
Tilting his head toward me, Farseeker sighed audibly. "Dwan..." he began, but then hesitated. "Dwan, would you be willing to discuss our problems with the Elders?" He hurried on quickly, not giving me time to think of objections. "We need you. You have experienced what we have not. You know intimately what most of the Isle are feeling. But you don't seem to be as caught up in it. I noticed you earlier with Darter. You seem to understand the source of your emotions more clearly than the others I've talked with. Please help."
I frowned, doubting my ability. It was not myself, after all, who had gotten myself out of my room, and out of the cycle of remembering. "I do not think I can help you."
"But you can at least try!" His voice strengthened. "Dwan, the Isle needs somthing to break through this --this pain! We need a path to healing, to acceptance of what has happened! We need a way to look forward again! There has been too much killing, too much hatred! We must learn again how to live, or what good has all of our sacrifice and all of our pain been?!"
I felt his pain and the strength of his emotions, and I wanted to flinch away. I wanted to close my ears and my thoughts to him, I wanted to pretend that this elf had nothing to say. Yet how could I ignore that plea when I knew he spoke only truth? How could I ignore the needs of the Isle, when for its sake I had overcome all of my kindlier instincts to protect? I told him I would try.
And then, I fled. Walking hurriedly, I re-entered the Isle, walking down one of the spiralling stairs. But I could not flee what I -- awakened to the truth -- now felt and heard. The Isle was quiet. Too quiet, for there was neither song nor laughter, nor talking, nor even crying. And that was terribly wrong. This was winter, a time when the Isle was supposed to be filled with life. It was supposed to be a time of laughter and fun, of music and dance and celebration. It was a time of ease, a time to concentrate on hobbies for which there was not time during the frenetic summer season. Instead, it was as if the entire Isle were gripped by some terrible malaise which no Healer could cure. Yet there must be a cure! There must be a way to accept what had happened, and then a way to go on. Thought how that could be when so many were dead. Like my other half, Tharol. Never to see, never to touch, never to join. My beloved. My mate. My other half...
wandered into what should have been the busiest, cheeriest place in the Isle--one of the hearth halls, where most of the cooking was done. I didn't even notice where I was, as I drifted across the room, until I was very nearly run down by an elf paying nor more attention to his surroundings than I. He jumped back, flushing. "I-I'm s-sorry," he stammered, as I watched him silently. "I wasn't watching where I was going. I was sending to Found."
Blinking away my bemusement, I took a fresh grip on my thoughts and managed a small smile. "It was as much my fault, Foxfire," I assured him. "If not more--I was only thinking to myself." I successfully kept my tone light. His reaction was as unexpected as the sun abruptly breaking through the clouds. He smiled, straightening from what I only then realized was a hunched, furtive posture. That still left him shorter than myself, as are most.
"It's only that he doesn't like to be left alone," he explained, turning toward the hearth, shifting the tray he held from his remaining hand to the crook of his shortened arm. "Even just for a little while. So I keep in touch when I leave him."
"Surely, you are not the only person looking after him?" I asked, gently taking the tray from him. "What about his father?"
The relaxed elf vanished as quickly as it had come. Avoiding my eyes, Foxfire set an empty bowl upon the tray. "Wallmaker won't answer our calls," he said in a low voice. "I went and found him last night, and tried to talk with him, but it was as if he wasn't even there. Aerva found me with him, and explained that he was in the rock. She said that he hadn't wanted to live after Feather died, but he stayed so that his powers could still contribute to the Isle."
"I understand," I said, and indeed, it was so. To be sundered from one's other half--the temptation to try to rejoin the other could be strong. As was the lure of the malleable but ageless stone. To focus on the rock to the exclusion of all else... To partake of its timeless, unknowing state... Tempting. Yes. I knew the temptation well.
"...I'd ask others to help me, but who?" Foxfire was ladling stew into two bowls, apparently unaware of my lapse in attention. "There's no one I can ask as a favor for Found -- he's never really had a chance to form friends since his rescue. My friends--it feels as if I'm intruding, to ask. As if I'm not important enough to be noticed."
I glanced around the room, noting how a cocoon of silence seemed to wrap around and separate each elf. Only one even seemed to take notice of us--Raven. When she noticed my glance, she gave us a sardonic, scornful look, then strode out of the room. Unable to guess what lay behind that look, I decided to ignore it.
Firefox said nothing more until we were ascending the stairs toward the room he was sharing with Found. "Do you think we'll ever get back to what we were, Dwan?" he asked, glancing at me with anxious, amber eyes.
"I don't know." I could not answer that for myself. How could I answer that for the Isle? Just trying to think of myself as being happy, without Tharol at my side--
"It's not for myself, it's for Found," he said hurriedly. "He's scarcely slept since we came back, for nightmares. I try to help him, but it's not enough! If only there was someone strong enough to keep him from feeling the despair and hatred! If only I could control my own thoughts well enough, but I can't!" His single fist was clenched. "My sisters, my parents--!" He did not look at me, but the tears in his eyes were echoed in his voice. I sighed, thinking of Whlen. Of Darter. Were we all caught within these mind-dulling, darkling emotions? Was there no way out?
Found turned his blind face toward us as we entered, sitting up in the confused nest of furs and blankets. "Firefox, someone's with you. Is it mother? Feather?" His voice rose with hope. "Please, mother? Please, let it be you?"
"It's Dwan--you remember Dwan?" Firefox hurried over to the bed as the blond eyebrows came together in confusion. Catching Found's hand in his own, Firefox sank down onto the covers. "Feather is dead. Remember?"
"No!" Found tried to twist away. "I-I can almost feel her! She's around, I know she is!"
"Brother." Speaking softly, Firefox put his arm around the once-crippled elf and held him close. "Remember what I've told you. Feather's spirit is here, yes. But only her spirit. Her body is gone. Dead. Try to remember, Found."
The blond-haired elf gave a low moan, so akin to Whlen's that I shuddered. Why were we like this?! Elves in pain and unable to get relief. Elves staring sightlessly inward, unable to forget what was best set aside--
**Dwan?!** The panicked sending startled me, nearly causing me to drop the tray. **Grandmother, where are you?!**
**I am with Found and Firefox in their room,** I sent, trying to project all the reassurance that I could. **I am well.**
**Oh!** Embarrassment colored her sent thought. But it passed quickly. **I'd forgotten he was back -- do you think Found would like it, if I came up? We--we were all friends with him, before the fighting started.**
**I'm sure Found would be glad of company, grand-daughter. In fact, why don't you ask some of the other children? If nothing else, you can be a help to him.**
My suggestion received enthusiastic agreement. Perhaps I had at least solved one small problem, I thought, as I placed the tray on a table shaped from the inside wall. Found had been so fearful and confused, when rescued with the other elves. His memories had been lost along with his sight, and for moons, not even his parents had been able to touch him without his trembling in uncontrollable terror. It had been the innocent children --particularly the youngest-- who had caused the first cracks in his shell of fear. Unbothered by his appearance or mannerisms, they had drawn him into their circle and accepted him. That last winter, at least, he had been a timid, shyly-smiling participant in their activities. Their games had changed subtly to allow for his disabilities -- changes that occurred without adult suggestion. Blind-elf's tag had never been so popular.
"Dwan, thank-you for helping." I looked up to meet Firefox's gaze. Found was still leaning against him, but without the desperate pleading on his face. "Please, don't be bothered by Found's outburst," he continued. "It's hard for him to remember. Feather's death--he has trouble accepting it, because he can still sense her presence, and he didn't feel her dying. Maybe if someone who saw her die shared their memories, it would be real enough for him to remember."
"I am not bothered," I assured him. "Part of me still believes Tharol must be alive, even though I know he is not. There may be many that feel that ..." I hesitated, feeling that I was on the verge of something important. But what? I shrugged it away. "Darter's coming up to visit. You were wrong when you said you had no one to ask for help, Firefox. Ask the ones who were children that last winter."
"That's right!" Firefox's face lit up, and beside him, Found straightened.
"Darter ... is coming to see me?" he asked in a whisper. "She still--likes me?"
"Of course she likes you," I said, sitting down on the corner of the bed. "She asked if she could come as soon as she learned where I was. I'm sure all the children will be glad to visit, and help Firefox, so that you do not have to be left alone."
The blind elf flinched a little, edging closer to his friend. "Don't like being left alone," he muttered. "Not like here. Everything makes hurt. Everyone angry, hate -- hate me?"
"No one hates you, Found," said Firefox. "The hatred is for the humans. They don't hate you, and no one is going to hurt you."
**Why should he think anyone hates him?** I asked, dropping into the greater privacy of sending.
**Some of the elves that escorted us back were angry because the Elders had ordered them not to chase the humans,** he replied in the same manner. **They took their tempers out on Found. They kept blaming him because he didn't locate a couple of ambushes that second summer. But it wasn't his fault! It wasn't his fault that Tinar and Farseeker pushed him so hard that he got confused those two times, and then nearly collapsed! Found doesn't have a quarter of the range or sensitivity of Farseeker, and that summer was before I started taking care of him full time, after my injury. I didn't get the chance to see him all summer, and when I did get on a supply trip to his cave that fall, I found that practically no one had really been taking care of him! No one had seemed to care that he couldn't take care of himself very well, or that he was scared and lonely, or that he could barely comprehend what the other farwalkers were making him do! Farseeker and Tinar got to stay in the Isle, but they put him all the way out under the eastern slopes, and then couldn't bother to assign someone to care for him! I was almost glad to lose my hand, because I was able to persuade the Elders to let me go care for him!**
I had not been in that area of the Valley that season, which had seen the heaviest fighting, as the humans learned to avoid our traps, and set their own. But I could remember the strain apparent in Tinar's image--he had not appeared that faint, or his 'voice' so whispery, since the summers before Farseeker was born. And Found had been difficult to understand a few moons ago, those few days when he had been forced to communicate with all the outside groups.
"Grandmother?" Darter's narrow hand parted the draperies as she peeked in. "You're here!" With a graceful bound, she leapt into the room and wrapped her arms around me. "Are you sure Found wants to visit with me?"
"Why don't you ask him?" I suggested gently, reaching to touch the back of her neck. Face flushed with palest rose, smooth-silk black hair sweeping gaily about her shoulders and back, blue eyes alight with life and happiness, she laughed in mingled embarrassment and sheer spirits. Innocent child.
I will always keep that memory of her: that last moment of childhood.
And, more sadly, antidote to pride, what my imperception allowed to happen next.
Flushed and happy as only a child can be, Darter turned around to face the two in bed. A moment later, the joy vanished. I noticed that -- how could I not, still touching her hand? Yet, I did not wonder. Silence came, and lengthened, broken only by the unheard flow between two souls, that cannot be described except in most intimate sending. I did not admit to myself what I sensed, or give it a name.
Found was the first to react. Poor Found! Blind and crippled he was in body, but yet--in some ways--even more crippled in his mind. He was so sensitive to every thought and emotion after the years spent straining mind and soul to keep aware of every elf in his range. So sensitive, and yet so much a timid, fearful child.
He called out, "Darter? You, you're here?" I turned, to see him leaning forward, bony fingers outstretched. "Please? Darter, please? Be friends? Don't go?" But she did not hear him, lost as she was within another's eyes. Found turned to Firefox, tugging on his sleeve.
"Firefox," he asked timidly, "why isn't Darter speaking to me? Please? What is wrong?" But Firefox was no more aware of his friend than was Darter. Found repeated the question, tugging again. When there was no reply, he gave a small cry of fear and sent, seeking the one source of comfort that had not failed him since his return to the Isle.
And then, he screamed. It was a cry of such terror as would make the dullest elf's blood run cold. It was the scream of a child who has discovered that he has lost everything. **No!** Found lunged forward, hands arched into claws. **He's mine!** he sent with maddened strength of will. **You can't have him!**
Darter shrieked, clutching her head and crumpling backward as her locked-eyes trance shattered. Her pain seared like ice, and I reacted with the instincts of a fighter. Not thinking, I lunged, meeting Found's move with my own, sending us flying over the bed and into the wall. Screaming inchoately, overburdened by fear and hurt, the blind elf attacked me with the only weapon he had...
was in a place of smooth, hard warmth. In agony. I could remember voices shouting at me, and hands pulling me away from someone. I screamed back at them and attacked, hating them. They tried to hold me, and I screamed at them to let me go. I made them let me go. I fled. I was in agony.
Tharol, where are you?!
I screamed that, in mind, maybe in voice. I could not stand the pain in me. Tharol, I need you! Help me! I slammed my fists against the hard rock we had shaped together: he and I; all of us. Tharol, I need you!
But he wasn't there! He was dead! He would never be with me in flesh again! He would never be at my side: not to dance, to run, to wrap his strong arms around me and fill me with his soul and essence! He was gone and I needed him!
Tharol!! My soul shrieked for him, and knew he would never come to me again. And the pain of it burned me, as hot within as the molten blood of the world. I could not stand it! I could not stand the pain and grief that burned within me! I would not stand it, if I must pull the stone from itself and let the liquid fire pour over me! What good would it do to live with so many dead, with Tharol gone?! Let it end! Let it end for all! I slammed my hands against the wall again, and thrust my heated thoughts into it. There was power in the Isle, as there was not elsewhere. I would use it, to end the heated agony, to end the grief!
But the power would not come! I struggled, but my tangled pain would not let the soft-silk flow that was my heritage come. I screamed, pounding my fists against the wall that remained obdurant and ungiving. Crying in frustration, I pounded my fists against the wall again and again, until even my body disobeyed my will and sank to the floor, shaking with frustrated, angry, and grieving sobs.
I dreamed, then, some time later--or so some tiny part of me said. Tharol came to me, silent and sadly-smiling. He gave my cheek his gentle touch, then turned away. I cried out: he turned and beckoned, still with that small, sad smile. I had to follow...
Russet eyes looked into my face. Long, narrow hands stroked my hair back. I was numb, unable to accept. My brother was dead and it should have been me. I set within my tiny room, which had just recently become mine, and refused to move from it. I was unable to do anything else, except to remember my brother--how he had died. Saving me from my own carelessness. My brother. My adored brother. Dead.
But Vrayl was there. Leader of the Isle. Always setting others before himself. Always there, always compassionate. And no stranger to grief. And that day he was there in my room, making me look at him. Remember your brother as he lived, not how he died, he admonished me with such gentleness. You do not honor his love for you, by sitting and mourning, and hating yourself for what happened. Remember, he yet survives in the spirit. If you will hard enough; if you are quiet enough within yourself to listen, you may yet sense his presence.
But it's my fault he's dead! I wailed. I should be dead, not him!
Then you must live for both of you, he told me. And you can't do that sitting alone in a room--come. Tell me about him. If you could only remember one thing about him, what would it be? Think about your brother. Remember.
Remember. The word echoed and vibrated down through the years. Remembrance. If we did not have that, what did we have, here on this world of two moons?
And yet ... it wasn't enough to just remember. To remember too much; to remember only what was painful or horrid: that way lay madness. To not remember pain and sadness, or mistakes; that was foolishness, of course. Yet to remember only the one--only when I sought to remember the joyous times with my brother; only when I remembered how his love for me sparkled through every moment with him: only then could I accept his death and go on. Remembrance could be either healing or madness. For the sake of all ourselves, we must chose the better path.
And Tharol smiled at me, nodding. Beyond him, not quite beyond the edge of my comprehension, were the others. Ah, so many others, not all of whom I could have known. And there was such warmth ... such warmth...
I basked in that warmth, the sense of the others slowly fading. I finally realized that the warmth was more physical than spiritual. Opening my eyes, I knew where I was, and swallowed a pang of memory. I was in the very deepest part of the Isle, where the world's hot blood flowed upward to heat the waters of the Isle's pools. Here, Tharol and I had stood with the others, those moons when we had succeeded in our goal of tapping that head. And when we had done that great feat, laughing and rejoicing together, I had glanced at Tharol, and found myself lost in him. We Recognized each other at that moment. This place held such a special meaning for us--how often, had we consummated our love here?
**Dwan.** Soft as the mental touch was, I started. For one wild moment, I thought -- hoped-- Tharol was there in flesh. Then I turned, and saw Farseeker floating along the wall. Whlen was with him, pressed against his legs, his muscles trembling under his sleek hide. I straightened, feeling awkward.
"What do you want?" I asked.
He was motionless. **They are here,** he sent simply, and with extreme softness. **They are all here. With you. What have you seen?**
Seen? I was not a far-seer, only a rockshaper--but my thought died aborning. I had seen. What I had seen--
**We must remember.** My gaze fell to the stone floor, and I felt somehow apart from myself, as if I were not the speaker. **We must remember. Who we are. How we came to be here--good and bad.** My hand touched the floor that I had helped to shape. **Together ... we fought, together. We--we must remember, together. They want us to remember. Remember the living.**
**Remember, yes. But how? What must we do, Dwan? Tell us what to do.**
**Come together.** I do not believe the words were mine alone, for I could almost feel the hands on my shoulders. **Come together in the Hall. Start at the beginning, then journey to the present. And then, turn the sorrow and the pain into a new beginning. Do not dwell on what has happened, but use the pain and grief and anger for good. We must build--from the past, for the present,and beyond. Let there be a place where remembering comes. A place of memories, where any may go...**
ou will go! What are you--helpless babies, to do no more than whimper, because you are hurting? If the humans could not defeat us, then why should a little snow?! The Isle needs fresh meat--it needs you! Have you turned cowards now, that you say you will not go?**
I sat in the great Hall, listening as Vaerrain insulted the fittest of the hunters. Farseeker had been in mental touch with the three Elders as he spoke to me in the depths of the Isle. Almost immediately, they had called every single elf to the hall. Even Wallmaker had been forced to attend, made to come back to himself, while Found came in on Raven's arms. I would not have thought my words meant so much--who was I, to provide direction for the Isle? But all four had seen more in my words than I, and Vaerrain--planner and dreamer as no one else--took charge.
She harried the hunters she had selected into agreeing to go out, then began on the rest of us. There were many things to do in the Isle--things that had been too long neglected. There were all the rock walls to check, and some to reshape. There were all the store-rooms to re-organize, their contents sum up. There were clothes to make and mend and clean, a clear-crystal-walled garden to replant and regrow. And an eight of other things to do, until no one had nothing to do.
Except, seemingly, myself. When the other elves began to leave, perhaps not quite as sullenly as they had arrived, I queried Vaerrain. She laughed silently. **You'll be helping with the shaping as you have time,** she sent. **But don't you need to plan where and how the Hall of Remembrance will be built?**
**Plan?** I stared at the grinning Elder. **But, Vaerrain, you are the Planner!**
**That may be so, Dwan, but you're the builder. The Hall is your idea.**
**Maybe it is,** I spluttered, taken aback by her proposal. **But, why me? I'm just--**
**Just one of the shapers who tapped the world's inner fires. Just one of the shapers who spent winters drawing up more stone and creating more room in the Isle, over and under the Lake surface. How many times hav you and the other thought about ways to make the Isle more like the Palace? So now is the time for you to set your mind and dream, Hall-Builder. Your time, to keep our hopes and dreams alive...**
I would rather not have such a charge placed on me, but how could I refuse? And as I sat alone, within that high-walled meeting place, I began to find myself drawn to the idea of the Hall. It had been many years since a major change to the Isle had taken place. Surely, now was the time to make such a change. Never, since our ancestors' arrival here had we lost so many within such a short period of time. To make something that would physically express our pain and loss, that would acknowledge what so many had sacrificed for those of us who survived. A place to remember; a place of stillness and comfort. A place, perhaps, where any of us could learn to go and sense the spirits of those departed from flesh. A Hall, a place that all contributed to. A Hall of Remembering. Of Remembrance.
Days passed, and the Elders kept every elf busy, giving them no time to lapse back into the pattern of listless inwardness. Elves were sent out to collect wood for our fires, while others risked their lives on the choppy, freezing Lake for fish. Virtually every scrap of clothes or other articles was cleansed, while rockshapers searched from top to bottom for the smallest flaw. Plant-shapers struggled to create fresh fruit and roots out of season, concentrated with the clear-crystal room that stood topmost on the Isle.
I took part in those activities, and yet I moved half the time within dreams. I was silent in those days, building an edifice entirely in my mind, visualizing it, and often starting over. I knew the rock bones of the isle as well as any, and knew that any change to the structure must not stress what was already there. Only rarely did I break my silence; several times to attempt touch with Darter and Firefox, to apologize, if nothing else. Both refused, and I rarely even caught a glimpse of either one. As for Found, I did not even try, though I was relieved to see him working in a group with Darter's friends, cleaning food utensils under Whlen's watchful eyes. It was my fault that Found had panicked. I had sensed what was happening. If I had been thinking, I could have reached for that blind elf and helped him understand what was happening, before he panicked. Whlen had been the first to sense that one's distress, I learned, and had raced for that room, arriving about the same time that I fled. It had taken both brothers and the Healer to bring that one back to sanity, and at least one had been at his side since. But it was too late for an easy acceptance of that Recognition..
ear gripped the Isle as the days since the hunters had left increased in number, despite Farseeker's reassurances. The Elders gave everyone as little time as possible to worry, even in only by finding fault and demanding things be redone. Finally, after two blizzards and running before a third, they returned, every one rekindled with the fire of clear, obvious success. Only then did the Elders announce a feast, and in the relief of a safe, successful return, no one demurred...
I came to the Hall as did the others, dressed in my best, aware of the odors from the banked fires along the wall, but not hungry, though I had eaten little in days. When we all sat and were silent, Aerva First-Born stood. She stood tall and straight, refusing to bend to the sorrow the years had given her. For some moments, she studied us, and only then began.
**When our parents first came to this world,** she sent to us all, **they found their powers weak, and were incapable of preventing the humans from slaughtering many of them. They fled, unable to do else, and found themselves lost in a world not theirs. Unsuited mentally or physically, they struggled--nevertheless--to survive. They placed their pain and sorrow and loss behind them, and strove to become part of this world. Faced with the reality of death, they learned to renew themselves, to give birth to their descendants, obeying the pattern of this world.
**They survived, but not without cost. Time and again, they and their descendants -- ourselves -- have been threatened. Sometimes from without--by the forces of this world. By human fear and hate. And sometimes, the threat has been from within.**
She paused for a long moment. **We have just survived such an outward threat--the effort of the humans to put an end to us. We defeated them. But, in so doing, we have planted the seeds of our defeat within ourselves. For we learned to look only at what was, and not what could be. We learned to turn away from each other, in a vain effort to be less hurt by loss. We learned to cling to hate and ignore all other emotions. It may have been necessary, but it was wrong. And you know it was wrong.
**The time has come for and ending and a healing,** she continued, after looking around to the many eyes that refused to meet hers. **The time has come to acknowledge our grief. The time has come to remember all of what we are: what we have been, and where we have gone.** Tinar rose silently and joined her, the scarred side of this skull--which he had never allowed any Healer a chance to Heal--fully revealed.
**You must come with us back to the beginning.** Tinar's sending now joined Aerva's, giving it a deep, edged and pained undertone. **To the source of what we are. Come with us, in memory, to the time of the Fall. And to all that came after...**
Reluctantly at first, then less so, the elves responded, allowing their minds to open to the Elders' memories, joining in a great weaving of awareness that encompassed every mind in the Isle. And then, we were there, as if the memories were our own--
The Fall of the Palace. Memories of memories, handed down from the survivors to their first children. The confusion and bewilderment as they opened the massive doors and ventured out, turning into terror before an inexplicable and murderous assault. The horror of realizing just how poorly magic worked, how unfit their bodies were. The first, dazed efforts to survive.
Days, moons, years passed. Var led his small group away from the others who might have survived, believing that survival best lay in taking different roads. The elves discovered new things, and relearned many lessons they had long before forgotten. They found that pleasure--even joy--was yet possible. And they learned to renew themselves through giving forth new life.
And more years passed. Accidents and humans destroyed more of the Firstcomers, and children took their places. They learned that grief can turn to madness, and that leaders can be defied. The group found its very existence threatened, and turned their faces to the mountains to escape.
The memories of that time ... if any had not been caught up before, they were fully part of the remembering now. For that trek, and its nearly disastrous ending, had marked the survivors deeply. The last two Firstcomers died. Vrayl's searing grief burned through us all, as did Var's anguished desolation. But while Vrayl eventually found the strength to carry on after Liria's sacrifice, Var--alone and the last--did not. His pain and grief turned on him and drove him mad. And he would have made an ending of us all, save for the one elf whose courage, love and agony will never be matched.
And the elves survived; survived the madness and survived the season of death. And with spring came renewal; came Vaerrain. The quest continued, and ended in the Valley. And we set about creating a home and a way of life...
Years passed in our remembering. The humans came to the Valley, nearly catching a careless Vaerrain. In response to her vision, the elves moved to the island for protection and security. Slowly, as more years passed, the pattern of our lives became set: hectic during the short summers, slower-paced during the long winters, encouraged if not driven to hone our powers by those who saw that we must work, if we were not to lose our ancestral gifts. We learned to use our powers and more. We learned the worlds' way of doing, and learned well. The Isle was more than a shelter, more than a haven. It was our home. If it was not quite a replacement for the abandoned Palace, we strove to make it as comfortable and as lovely as we could.
But never could we ignore the outside world. We depended on it for food and supplies. Some of us could not abide being forever within rock walls. And so, we were forced to accept the deadly reality of the world. Vrayl sought to increase our safety by enlarging the Lake. Misjudging the water's power, he died when the first Holder broke. A second Holder was successfully built. But carelessness led to tragedy as humans fell on the celebrating elves, killing among others the single Healer born in all the time since Liria. And there was anger and despair. But the Isle survived.
And continued in its pattern, changing slowly, moving within the rhythms of the seasons. Elves were born. Elves died of accidents and human hate. The humans began sending war parties up the Pass every five years. Shaping the Pass closed was considered, but rejected, since stubborn humans would only find another way. The five-year pattern continued, and it seemed it would last forever.
Until it changed...
The joined sending wavered as some elves within the awareness struggled to escape, not wanting to face the memories of what came next. But the Elders held those minds and did not let them go. The pain and sorrow had to be faced, and we all knew that by now.
The pattern we had become used to broke with the capture of two elves, and the subsequent rescue of three. We thought the rescue would end the threat the humans planned--to join all the tribes together into a single effort. We were wrong. Fatally wrong. The group journeying to the Pass to take up their Watch discovered that they had been anticipated.
Pain, terror, and death! Willing or not, the memories of the two elves yet living were pulled into the merge. We lived through their desperate efforts to fight back, to defend themselves by throwing up walls of rock. In agony from their wounds, five elves succeeded in shaping a dome about them. But not all outside were yet dead, and we shared those slow dyings.
And we moved with Farseeker as he sensed the strangeness and left his body, to discover horror. Not just that elves were dying or dead, but that the massed tribes were not in their normal gathering place below the Pass, but were in the Pass itself. Almost none of us agreed to a proposal that we fall back to the Isle, and hope that the humans would simply leave when the Valley failed to sustain them...
The remembering was agony. No one elf could have survived the outpouring of those memories. But no one elf had to. Though many of us had been reluctant to join that remembering, we were irrevocably bound together by then. All that was pain and grief, anger and hatred came out in that sharing. And when there was reluctance, there were others to gently insist. When the grief became too much to bear, there were others to send more deeply, to offer love, to share. Through another's eyes, I saw my lifemate die, raising a wall to protect the others even has he fought. It was as if I were there, and my heart broke anew. But Whlen was there, knowing that pain from his own past. Vaerrain was there, and Eveningstar, and so many others. My daughter died, and Darter's mind reached for mine from across the room, crying. Feather died, and minds reached out to comfort lifemate and son. We ran with Whlen on four paws, and saw the battles against fire from Tinar's perspective. We felt the cold satisfaction of the shapers as the human camp fell into the pit, and shared Farseeker's anguished horror. We lived the children's paralyzed shock as two of their age-mates died before their eyes.
And when it was done, we seethed with four-turns worth of emotions that had been blocked away and now released. Pain and fear, grief and rage, horror and hatred. Our emotions blazed, burning like a holocaust, tossing like a boat in a lake-storm. A thought oozed into the swirling chaos -- The humans had left too soon. The humans had left too easily. The elves should not have withdrawn. It had not been enough, they had been let off too easy, they should have been killed-- Hatred began to focus out of the seething mixture, growing like a whirlpool that threatened to draw everything in--
**No!** A guttural howl echoed the the anguished cry. **Is this the legacy you wish for our dead? Is this what your loved ones have died for? Can we claim no better dream than this? Show them the dream, Dwan! Show them how we can dream!**
The growing storm faltered as its sources turned elsewhere, as grief-shrouded minds longed for something more than hate. Had I been only myself, I would have been lost in that wave that descended on me. But others had bound their wills with my own, giving me the strength to bring forth my dream.
And I dreamed of a vision of Haven, and a leader's wise advice. I called on the image of the Isle, and swirled it into a new shape. I dreamed them a Hall, filled with crannies and nooks, filled with peace and with love, where one could listen for the voices of the dead. A place of memory, a place of remembering for all that had been good.
And, then, I dreamed more. I swirled the Isle and covered rounded slopes with green. In the center, I rose a great Tower. They had worked for our ruin, but their best efforts had failed. And this was our answer -- a great spire of rock, growing with spiralling roots above the new Hall.
The storming sea flared. Yes! Life, will to live, love and joy sparked and grew. Yes! The dream transformed, was transformed, as rage and hatred vanished. We will build! said the dream, said the Isle with one mind. We will love, we will live, we will build!
I drew a breath and opened my eyes, knowing myself as one, though still part of many. But before I could think, I heard a guttural howl. I looked and saw the cat-Whlen, writhing as he staggered in a circle, his tail whipping wildly, his cat-face drawn in a rictus of pain. **Whlen seeks to change!** Was it myself who said that, or another? **Call to him! Think on him as he was!**
**Whlen!** I on my feet, arms outstretched. **Whlen! Take what we have! Return!**
His eyes caught mine. Then, I felt a flow of power so great that I swayed with it. An image came to my mind and I focused on it -- Whlen as he had been -- tall and strong, blue-eyed and brown-haired, with an ever-ready grin. I sent the image with the flow. **This is you! You are Whlen! You are Whlen!**
**I - am - Whlen!** With a guttural cry, the cat reared up, pawing the air with spread claws, tail lashing, eyes closed and ears flattened. **I - am - Whlen!**
And he began to change! The lashing tail shrank, and fur disappeared. The proportions began to shift -- hind legs, paws, upper arms lengthening, torso and face shortening. Neither cat nor elf, he swayed. **I - am - Whlen!**
The tail disappeared and fangs shrank and transformed. A riotous mop of curls sprang about the ears and smoothly-curving skull. An elf stood before us, standing on tip-toe, hands arched, face twisted in pain? Concentration?
**I am Whlen!**
And he fell to the floor.
There was dead silence. I don't think anyone dared to breathe. Until they saw his ribs move.
It was Eveningstar who broke the silence, running to her brother, laughing and crying. She flung her arms around him as he pushed himself up, then looked up and cried, "He's back!"
And the air thundered with cheers.
The cheering had not died down when someone started beating a drum. Within moments, there were elves dancing in the middle of the Hall, and most of those not dancing were stamping their feet or clapping. I did none of those things, being content to sink back to my seat and watch Whlen's family, savoring the feeling of joy and satisfaction. It was so good to feel!
Three bodies sailed down and landed in front of me -- Darter and Firefox, with Found in between. Disengaging from her hold, Darter jumped forward and embraced me. "Oh, grandmother, I'm sorry I didn't want to talk with you!"
I hugged her back. "It's all right, Darter." I glanced at the two elves. "I take it that you've reached some sort of decision?"
She smiled -- if a smile could glow, hers was. "Found doesn't quite understand everything," she said, going back to his side and looping his arm back across her shoulder, and putting her own arm about his waist. "But he knows that I'm not taking Firefox away, I'm joining them. And that, in a couple of years, there'll be four of us."
"Baby." Found grinned happily. "I like babies."
Firefox chuckled. "Yes, well it won't be for two years, so don't get impatient, my friend. Now, I don't know about you two, but I am hungry. I say we go eat."
Found wrinkled his nose. "More fish?"
"No, I had nice, tender venison roast in mind. Come on, you two, let's go!"
The trio took off, and I watched them go, smiling. It was so pleasing to know that my inattention had not permanently hurt their chances for a long-term bond. And it would be a joy to see my family enlarged, two years hence. Yes, such a joy--
Something caught my attention from the corner of my eye. Whlen broke out of the small mob around him, wearing a robe that was absurdly short for him. I scrambled to my feet as he staggered toward me, and went to meet him, for in truth I was afraid he might fall. He did almost run into me, his hands coming down on my shoulders to catch himself. He laughed breathily. "I can't seem to walk yet," he said. "I keep losing my balance." Tears were streaming down his face, but he was smiling. "I think--"
Abruptly, he wrapped his arms around me and hugged me tight, shaking. "Oh, Dwan!" he cried. "You saved me! You brought me back!"
"It was the Isle that brought you back," I demurred.
"But you saw my need; you led them. I never would have gotten back on my own, never! Oh, Dwan!"
I hugged him back, and felt joy for him. After a while, Whlen eased his embrace, and lifted one hand to touch my face. "Thank-you," he whispered, smiling through his tears. "I just wanted to ... thank-you..."
His expression changed, and his touch, meant only to be a sweeping carress, lingered. So close, I felt his sudden surge of desire. For me? His eyes widened, and his fingers drifted to my hair. "Dwan?" he whispered, his expression oddly shy. "Would you--?"
To my own surprise, I found my own body responding. But, now? With Tharol's death fresh in my thoughts? But my hand was already stealing inside that ridiculous robe of his, touching the hot, firm, living flesh beneath. I hesitated a moment longer--
And felt Tharol laughing at me.
I know he was laughing. Scamp! If he could have set this up, he would have. Dear Tharol.
And, suddenly, I was laughing, too. I gave Whlen my answer, hugging him anew, my heart filled with joy and love. And I knew then, as I know now, that the truest response to the years of sorrow was not in a Hall or a Tower, but in living and loving.
And I laughed again.