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The Lake Dwellers

The beating of branch against wood could not replace the drums that were lost, but in their need it was enough. The chanting and rhythms soothed the minds of the tired, worried humans, and made them ready. The woman behind the smoky fire became more than the strong but aging, white-haired grandmother she was during the day. She was M'ka'arru -- She-Who-Serves, Voice of the Mother. Casting off the dark fur cloak, she stretched her arms to the dark sky, white leathers and trim tinted red by the flames. As if by magic, the fire suddenly leapt upwards, snapping in colors of blue and green, before settling down as the strange-scented smoke flowed outwards.

"Hear us, oh Mother, You Who gave birth to all! Give us the strength to face what must be! Send us the messenger of which the sky-spear speaks, for which we have waited these past days! Give us the wisdom to know your messenger when it comes, and the courage to face its testing, that we may prove worthy of the lake and valley to which you guide us!

R ather than wait for the boat to touch the shore, Silvertree glided over the last stretch of water. Guided by the faint reflections of light off the wet-barked trees, she walked quickly towards the hidden cave, leaving her would-be escorts behind. "All right, Eldests, why did you insist I come here straight here, without stopping at the Isle," she began, while still in the swan-necked corridor that led to the main cavern. "You said there were no injuries, so I fail to see -- you!"

Tirade and elf came to an abrupt stop, as the silver-haired Healer stared at a raggedly-dressed elf leaning against the wall. Some three hands of elves stood or sat within the fire-lit room, but she had eyes for only one. "You!" she said again, clenching her hands, her green eyes, shaded by the straw rain-hat, wild. "What are you doing here?!"

One foot against the wall, arms across her chest, Nightblade did not look up. "I guess you haven't forgiven me."

"Forgiven you?!" Silvertree's voice was low, but her body was tense and trembling. "Forgive you --!? You, you hurt me ... " She took a step forward. "... you could have killed me ..."

"Enough, Silvertree!" From the side, Tinar spoke sharply. "We do not have the leisure to worry about old quarrels!"

The Healer ignored him, her eyes not leaving her sister. "You knew my name... I trusted you ... and you ... you -- curse you!!" Silvertree leapt towards Nightblade, hands reaching, eyes mad with hatred and remembered fear. With speed belying her aged features, Aerva intercepted that leapt, grabbing the Healer's arms and forcing her down.

"Be still!" she commanded, meeting the maddened gaze. "You will leave her alone!"

"No!" With an upward thrust of her hands, Silvertree broke free, backing away. "You can't stop me! I am the Healer, I can give pain as well as take -- you can't stop me!"

**But we can.** Silvertree started to turn as she felt Tinar's hands on her shoulders, then screamed and collapsed as the Eldests sent the power of their linked minds into her own. Against her will, shaking with the pain of that blast, Silvertree began to cry.

"You don't understand," she sobbed, trying to stop the tears, and failing. "I was so happy, so happy, and then she was there in my mind, screaming, and I couldn't stop her, it hurt so much. I never wanted to see her again, and now you let her come back..."

"Enough, Silvertree." With no apparent sympathy, the white-haired Elder lifted her to her feet, then let his lifemate take her. "Control yourself, Healer. We have waited long enough for your arrival."

Silvertree was already trying to do that. Accepting the old elf's support, she struggled to breathe deeply and slowly. She felt humiliated at having lost control before the Eldests and the others. Hot-tempered rockshapers lost control. Not her. She was the Healer. She was always in control of herself, of her temper and her powers.

Dashing the tears from her face, Silvertree pulled away from Aerva, and stared at the fire. "All right, Tinar," she said stiffly, "explain what is going on. I assume you have a good reason for having me come straight here, instead of stopping at the Isle at least long enough for dry clothes, hot food, and a little time with my family? Or had you forgotten I've been away four straight moons?"

"Some have been away longer," observed Tinar coldly. "We wanted you here in case of an accident. We are going to lower the Lakeholder."

"What?!" Silvertree looked up at Tinar. "Why? I know the Lake's the highest it's ever been -- too high -- but it's been that way since Ice-break! I thought you had all decided the effort wasn't worth the risk! Why change your minds now -- no, wait." She stared at him, eyes narrowing. "The humans in the gorge! They're why you changed your mind!"

He nodded. "They're less than a half-day's walk from the Holder. They may move at any time, and nearly all of our best fighters are located in the Pass, or scattered south and west. There's no time to get them here, and we can't leave the Pass unguarded, while those two human tribes are in the area below it."

"You're going to lower the Holder, and hope the waters flood the gorge and drown them?" Silvertree stared at the Elder with a sense of growing horror. "But why? They're no threat to us -- Farseeker said they're a tribe, not a war-party, that there are less than eight hands! We can't just kill them all -- it's wrong!"

"Any humans near the Valley are a threat to us," said Tinar flatly. "Don't argue with us, Healer."

"But it's wrong!" Silvertree's voice rose. "At least give them a chance to leave! Farseeker said they're not even from the local area, that their clothing is strange, their language different, and even some of their weapons! They may not even know we exist!"

"Oh, they know, all right."

Silvertree spun to face her sister. "How would you know?" she challenged. Nightblade gave her a thin smile.

"Because I've been following them for the last three moons, that's how." She straightened, moving away from the wall, hands on her hips. "I've spent most of the last ten years sneaking around the various human settlements, finding out what they're up to these days, given how they haven't tried raiding in almost an eight-eight of years. This spring, I followed a large group that looked like it might be heading for the gorge. They ended up going more north than west, but then they ran across this tribe. They weren't able to speak each other's language, but they communicated, all right. The hunters gave them a map showing how to get here, and there was enough hand-waving and symbol-making, that this tribe knows about us." She paused, then added, "And don't think they haven't had a chance to run. I threw a spear with our warning symbol on it into their camp four nights ago. If they don't want to heed the warning, well, that's their problem."

"But what if they didn't understand your 'warning'?" demanded Silvertree. "If they couldn't talk with the others, how could they have more than vague ideas about what is here?"

"What would you have had me do, sister?" asked Nightblade, jeering. "Stroll into their camp and say 'hello, there, would you mind turning around and going back the way you came? If you don't, we just might have to kill you all?'"

Silvertree flushed. "Don't call me sister."

Nightblade abandoned whatever indolence remained in her pose, her weight shifting forward, hands tightening into fists. "And why not?" she demanded. "That's what we are -- sisters. One day doesn't change that! You know I didn't know what I was doing! I was half out of my head with fear, because Farseeker said he wasn't sure if even you could keep Fireclay from dying! I run all the way in, seeing my lifemate's face, thinking that I couldn't bear to lose him, that if he dies I'll have nothing of him, not his name, not his child! And then when I burst into the Healing Room, I find you've not just healed him, you've taken what was meant to be mine, you've Recognized him! I went out of my head -- I didn't know what I was doing!"

"Didn't know?!" Silvertree half-shouted. "Don't tell me you didn't know! You could have killed me, you nearly did! It was days before I could heal, days before I could send without pain! And you didn't even have the nerve to stay around!"

"What do you mean, nerve? I left for you, for Fireclay! So he'd be able to go to you without feeling pulled apart by his loyalty to me! Don't talk courage with me, sister -- not after ten years of spying on the humans!"

"That is enough! Both of you!" Tinar stepped between them, his square face set in angry lines. "We have no time for your foolish quarrel. Silvertree, you will stay here, until we call you, if needed. Nightblade, the rest of you, come with us. Dwan and Wallmaker will guide the shaping, and we will link your minds together, so that you may work as one. Now, come."

The cold dampness made Shalun's old bones ache, but she was not yet ready to retreat to her sleeping furs. Sitting cross-legged before the fire, back in her everyday leathers, she examined once more the strange object that had sliced down from the sky four nights before. It was like a spear, but barely longer than her arm, trimmed feathers fastened to one end. The head was of flint, but impossibly smooth. Just behind it, another piece of red stone was wrapped around the wood, and this stone had a figure carved on it. A slender figure, with human stance, but unhuman. It held a suggestion of long hair, large slanted eyes, and points that were either ears or horns. It was holding a spear the length of its body, point down.

Shalun stroked the carving with a fingertip, wondering again at the power that allowed stone to be carved as easily as wood or ivory. When the spear had first come down, she had interpreted it as a signal to wait where they were. That she and her small tribe were to wait for a sign, a testing, from the Earth Mother. So she had argued, as the M'ka'arru, and had persuaded the others, many of whom feared the sky-spear. But now, four nights after the falling of the sky-spear, even she must struggle against doubts. How much longer must they travel, before finding a new place to call home? Why had the Mother allowed Her children to be treated so? Why had She allowed the half-starved, barbaric intruders to do what they had done? Slaughtering, pillaging and burning the three settlements on the great lake. Furthest away from the invaders' path, only her tribe had escaped, though losing nearly half their number. The invaders settled along the lake with their unkempt families, in such numbers that it was obvious that the remnants of the !Nay Lors'tai had no chance to regain their home. Why? Why should such barbarous people be allowed to destroy Her children? There must be a reason for what had happened, but it had yet to be revealed. Why she had been guided to lead her people south along the mountains, after the neighboring tribes had been unable -- or unwilling -- to go fight the invaders or take in her own people. Why had she repeatedly seen visions in the soranti-smoke of a mountain lake, smaller, but more beautiful than the one that had been their home? And now, they waited within a few days' walk of their goal. For what? A sign? A test? If only the Great Mother would make things clear!

"Mother, may I join you?"

Shalun set the sky-spear down. "You should be sleeping, Taysha."

"I --" The younger woman's breath caught in a gasp. Shalun looked up sharply, then sprang to her feet, forgetting her aching bones. After a few moments, Taysha breathed again. "I - I don't think I will be sleeping."

Grasping the younger woman's arms, Shalun scanned the pale face of her youngest child. "Mother help us!" she exclaimed. "I hoped it wouldn't be yet -- how long ago did the pains start?"

The red-haired, pregnant woman smiled faintly. "Late afternoon. I hoped that they were only ... false pains."

Shalun spared a brief glance downwards. "I think not. I'd better rouse Norshan and Payluna."

"No!" The soft but intense negative brought Shalun's eyes back to her daughter's face. "The pains aren't that close together yet. And ... I want to be with you for a while, Mother. Just the two of us, alone." The pale brown eyes began to fill. "It's not that I am complaining, Mother, but we've talked together so little since this journey began. You've had all the responsibility to keep us going, to keep our hopes alive. I've done the best I could not add to your burden. But now ... this is my first child, and we're so ... so far from home ... and, and I'm scared ... I - I need you, Mother ..."

"Oh, daughter -- forgive me!" Shalun embraced Taysha, tears starting within her own, darker eyes. "I have neglected you, as a mother never should! Of course you may sit with me. I should have noticed your needs before. Of course you are afraid -- what woman is not, at least a little, when she first faces the pain and effort of bringing forth life? And to do it here and now, during our wandering ..." Stepping back, Shalun moved to her daughter's side and threw a supporting arm about her. "Let me help sit down, daughter," she said briskly, turning to practicalities. "At least you thought to put on your hood and cape. I'll just build up the fire --

"But, Mother, I can --"

"Sit!" Shalun turned a fierce glare and finger on her daughter. "You'll have enough to do in the night ahead. Save your strength -- and don't let yourself get chilled! Understand?"

Taysha smiled, reaching up to tug the hood a bit further forward. "Yes, Mother."

"And don't 'yes, mother' me, unless you mean it!" But Shalun smiled, her growled order as mock as Taysha's meekness. They smiled at each other, aware of the ties that bound them together, women, mothers both, and children of a greater Mother ...

Alone in the cave, Silvertree paced angrily, unfastening her hair so it fell freely down her back. It was wrong, what the elves were doing! To wipe out an entire tribe of people, young and old, giving them no chance to escape; it was wrong--evil! And what if, by some chance, one escaped, and made it to the other tribes? It might inflame the humans' anger, make them join together in another massive attempt to destroy the elves! Had the Eldests considered that?! No doubt, they figured to track down any that did escape, and kill them, but there was always the chance of failure. And aside all that, it was wrong! These humans had done the elves no harm, not they, nor their ancestors! Must there always be nothing but enmity? Could there never be even an attempt to communicate, to not come to blows? Why could not elves and humans live in peace?!

The Healer tried to imagine what the humans would see, when the Holder was lowered. The elves knew from sad experience the power of abruptly released water. The LakeHolder, like the Isle, needed constant care and watching by those who had shaped it. The forces of the world constantly strove against their efforts -- forces of water and ice, subtle shifts in the depths, the build-up of silt carried down by the rushing streams that fed the Lake. Shapers were on the Holder every summer, checking for changes in stress, looking for weaknesses. A major reshaping was a hazardous effort, for a single mistake could -- and did -- allow the dam to break. And when that happened, anyone in the way of that wall of water ... died.

And it was going to happen to the humans. Silvertree imagined them waking up to the roar of the plunging water, crawling out of their shelters, to see a churning, frothing wall thundering down on them. They would try to run, if they were not paralyzed with fright. And then the wall would overtake them, swallowing them, or maybe tossing them aside like limp dolls. Like Fireclay had been flung back by the explosion of his kiln, to fall down a hand of lengths to the Lake ...

Silvertree touched the white and gray ceramic disks hanging from the thin, silver neck-ring, remembering that day. The crack of the explosion had echoed through the Valley, stopping every activity on Isle and shore. An alert plant-shaper, working outside, saw what happened and dived into the Lake after him. By merest good chance, she had been in the Isle that day. They had brought his burned and broken body to her room, and she had Healed. It had been the single most difficult Healing she had ever done. There had been so many things wrong! The burns where the heated air had blasted against exposed skin, the lacerations and breaks from the flying shards of rock --! The impact with the Lake had nearly broken his neck, and the shaper had not rescued him before water could pour into his lungs ... Without Farseeker's help, she could never have held body and soul together long enough to reverse the body's dying. She had feared she would fail.

But she had succeeded. And when she had slumped over him, when raw-skinned eyelids crept up to reveal his large, gray eyes ... Recognition. Instant, and irrevocable. They had been lost in each other, so completely, that they never knew when their elders left the room. For an endless time, they had been aware only of each other's souls, and a quiet, gentle, unhurried, but all-encompassing demand that not even exhausted bodies could deny. They had been flooded with endless, radiating tide of love.

And then, she had come. Silvertree pressed her fingers against her temples, not wanting to remember. Like a black, piercing spear thrown into the center of her essence, the scream had come. A scream of rage, hurt, and hatred! A scream that was her inner name, shouted by the mind that had been her closest, most trusted friend! Her sister! And she had had no defense against that scream, against the rage and hatred that tore through her. She was too weak from Healing, too tired, too open! The other part of her had tried to help, tried to stop the hurting, but he was no stronger than she! And the pain had gone on and on, as if there would be no end! No end --

No! Silvertree slammed her fists against the rock wall, fighting away the memories. She would not remember. That day was gone. She had survived. Fireclay had survived. Snowleaf, an elf with healing powers that would one day exceed her own, had been conceived, and two years later, born. And if Nightblade thought she could simply saunter back into the Isle, that a little apology would make things as it was -- she was wrong! Just as she was wrong, to think the warning-spear would make sense to those who had no knowledge of such; no stories of what happened when the spear was ignored. To kill, to destroy people who had never raised a spear against the elves, was wrong!

But what could she do? Silvertree whirled away from the wall and began to pace again. She couldn't stop the shaping. The humans would be sleeping by now, with no warning of what was to come. Unless ... was there no way she could warn them?

Nightblade's case of spears caught the Healer's eyes. Walking over, she pulled one of the light-weight javelins out, then took the spear-thrower and placed the feathered shaft on it. She knew how to use the thrower, though she rarely had reason to touch any weapon. Nightblade would have thrown the spear from a hiding place, or overhead; she could do the same. But a plain spear wouldn't do. She would need some way to convey to them what was going to happen. Some sort of symbols -- images, like Spider designed for the great tapestries in the Hall of Remembrance. A piece of leather, and something to make marks with ...

The cave had been created for the convenience of elves working on the LakeHolder. Searching the shelves, Silvertree decided on a piece of thin, pale leather from the healing supplies. But how to mark the images onto the leather? Perhaps something liquid, that would stain. Silvertree made a quick check around the room again. Nothing but water; no wines, no fresh berries. She scowled, not wanting to admit defeat. Something liquid, to make a mark --

A thought made the Healer smile in bemused irony. Spreading the leather out on the table, she touched her finger, then began to draw. What more appropriate for a warning of death, than blood?

Quickly, she stroked the leather, creating a crude image of the waterfall and river. She was no Spider, but hopefully the humans would understand the symbols -- they must surely know the source of the roaring that would be audible at their camp. She added stick figures along the river. Thinking a moment, Silvertree made a series of small marks below the image, one for each human. Three eights plus five, Farseeker had said. Counting the number of marks twice, the elf then began on a second image, next to the first.

Finishing, and feeling a sense of urgency, Silvertree healed the small cut. Wrapping the leather around the spear, she tied it firmly. Moving to the entrance, she peered around, then dashed out. She would have to hurry, as she could not be sure how long it would take the elves to shape the Holder, or how long it would take her to glide down to the human camp. And one elf -- probably Nightblade herself, would be keeping watch while the others worked.

The rain had stopped, and a few stars could be seen as the clouds began to break up. Running lightly, Silvertree came to the edge of the dropoff, and worked her way around some bushes to get a view of the LakeHolder. Elves were still moving around on either side, and there was no sense of power flowing. Looking down, Silvertree planned her moves. This side was less steep than the other, and there were trails beaten out by animals. She would have to stay behind the trees until she reached the first bend in the river -- or at least until she was too far down for someone could catch up.

Working her way to the nearest trail, Silvertree started down, running, then gliding as the mud-slick path steepened. Gaining speed, she followed the zig-zagging trail, every sense attuned to detect and avoid objects. The rush of air was exhilarating. Despite the seriousness of her effort, laughter bubbled within the elf's mind. This was living! How often had she chafed at the restrictions placed on her by being the Isle's only Healer? How often had she envied others' freedom, and secretly resented the escort of armed elves without which she never went ashore? She was free! The Eldests would be properly horrified when they found out, but what could they do? They could not restrict her more than was done now. And when Snowleaf grew up, there would be some changes made, for with two Healers, why then should she always deny herself? There was more than one Wolf's daughter in the Isle!

T aysha bent over with a cry, grimacing. Shalun gripped her shoulders. When the contraction eased, the old woman spoke firmly. "You're going back to the tent, young woman, and I'm calling Norshan and Payluna."

Her daughter nodded, panting. "Just, just a little longer, mother." Wiping off her face, she then reached down and picked up the skyspear. "Do you really think this was meant to tell us to stop, and wait for a sign?"

Shalun frowned, not liking that her own daughter now questioned her. "What else could it be?" she asked sharply. Taysha looked away.

"I can't help thinking about our meeting with those hunters," she said. "The ones who gave us the map. I keep thinking about the image that one man drew in the dust, and the way they all kept saying the same words, and shaking their heads. The image was a little bit like this image on the spear -- a being with long hair and points on the side -- pointed ears? I keep thinking, what if they were trying to say that beings that look like this live up there, on the lake? Maybe the hunters were trying to say that these beings don't want humans around, or, maybe, that they're bad, like the tribes that destroyed our lake dwellings? You know they kept shaking their heads when they made the map, and they kept pointing the way we came, as if to say go back. What if this skyspear was meant to be a warning, that we should turn back?"

"Why would the Mother had guided us here, if we were not meant to stay?" asked Shalun in turn. "Why would I see visions in the smoke, of the lake and valley?" She stared at the fire, then added slowly, "There might be beings in the valley. But I can't believe the Mother would lead us to them without a reason. Perhaps ... She means us to do something with or for the beings symbolized on the skyspear. Perhaps something, those other humans have not. I do not know. I only know the Mother has a purpose for our being here. And that we must wait, for Her to reveal what it is."

B lood pounding in her ears, Silvertree burst out above the treetops, curving up over the river. There! The campfire near the river cast sharp relief over the scene. Two women were sitting near the fire, but everyone else was apparently inside the handful of tents. Stilling her momentum, the silver-haired elf fit the spear into the thrower, checking that the leather wrapped along the shaft near the head was secure. Gripping the thrower, she glanced down, noticing that the red-haired woman was very far along in pregnancy. Sensing the flow of power above and behind her, the Healer felt revulsion. To cause the death of an unborn child -- what more innocent being could there be than such a one, human or elf? What joy that woman must be feeling, as she looked forward to the time her child would exist outside her body -- to obliterate that joy! Silvertree drew back her arm, aiming for the side of the fire opposite the women, convinced, if she hadn't been before, of the rightness of her effort. With the women awake, she would not have to make the risk of trying to wake the humans by calling out, and thus revealing her presence. Drawing a deep breath, the elf tried to hold herself steady -- she'd never thrown while gliding -- and readied her throw --

A glimpse of blurred motion and the hiss of moving air were the only warnings she had. Startled, Silvertree turned her head, but had no time to avoid the spear that tore into her abdomen. With a choked cry, she doubled up, the thrower and spear dropping from her hand. No! Blood gushed over her hands as she clutched the wound, and she knew with a clarity available only to a Healer the damage done. She must Heal! But the pain took away her concentration, and it refused to come! Belatedly, she remembered that she was in the air, and opened her eyes to find herself dropping towards the ground. Desperately, she gathered her thoughts and will and lifted upwards. But she had neither the strength nor the time to avoid a rough collision. Her shoulder took the brunt, softened at least by the muddy nature of the ground, but the pain in her belly sheeted upwards. Crying out, she struggled to fight back the dizzying pain, because she knew that she could not afford to lose consciousness before she Healed, or she would die!

Brarak gave a shout of triumph and ran forward as the star-haired being fell from the sky, thanking the Mother that he had thrown his spear in time. If he had not been watching the sky, if the larger moon had not come out from under a cloud, he would never have seen the pale-haired form moving against the sky. Another moment, and either the M'ka'arru, or Taysha would have been killed -- but he had thrown first. The M'ka'arru leapt to her feet, then began to walk towards the fallen being.

"M'ka'arru, no!" he yelled, fitting another spear to his thrower. "Keep back -- keep back!!"

She whirled about to stare at him. "You fool! What have you done -- you may have ruined everything!"

He charged past her to stand between her and the being. "It was going to kill you, M'ka'arru! If I hadn't noticed the blur of its hair as it flew up from behind the trees, I wouldn't have seen it in time! By the love of the Mother, M'ka'arru, stay back!"

She stared at him. "I don't believe you."

Brarak glanced quickly around. "Then look over there -- past the fire!" He pointed with his free hand. "A spear and a thrower -- now do you believe!"

Shalun looked, and her undimmed eyes spotted the bulge just behind the skyspear's head. "I believe that you may have ruined the Mother's plans for us!" She glared at him, and with a quick move, twisted the thrower out of his hand and threw it onto the ground. "Would a killing spear carry a wrapped leather behind its point? Go get the spear, then rouse the camp, while I bring the messenger to the fire!"

People were already spilling out of the tents, asking what was going on, as Shalun walked hastily towards the moon-haired being. It lifted its head as she neared, and scrambled to its feet. "Do not be afraid, spear-bearer," said Shalun softly, holding up her empty hands. "Brarak saw with eyes clouded by fear -- he did not know what he did." She moved forward, and the being lunged into the air with a cry of unmistakable fear. "No, spear-bearer, do not leave!" cried the M'ka'arru, flinging out her arms. One part of her mind noticed that the slender form was female. "We have injured you, give us a chance to make amends! Please!!"

The messenger was trembling from head to foot, her hands fruitlessly trying to stem the dark tide spreading over the front of her unusual clothes. Her eyes were wide with fear -- as well she should be, after such an unwarranted attack, thought Shalun. She tried to ease closer, speaking softly and coaxingly. "Please, spear-bearer. Let us help you. We grieve for our mistake; let us show you. You are injured, let us try to help you. Can you make it back to your home without our help? Please let us help. Please ..." She continued to talk, softly yet insistently as she edged closer to the shivering other. Continued, until she was close enough to make a small, quick move, and take hold of one of the slender arms.

The messenger shrieked, and tried to free herself, but Shalun held her firmly. Abruptly, with a cry, the messenger gave in, shivering violently as the human woman gathered her in her arms. The watching people parted around her as she approached. "Payluna, bring your medicine bag," she called, as she kneeled by the fire, easing the slim, light body to the ground. "We must try and help this one!" Awe and wonder and fear lighting their faces, the others crowded close, trying to get a better look. "Get back!" ordered Shalun fiercely, when she noticed. "Would you want to be stared at, at a time like this? If you must do something, pray to the Mother and ask that She forgive us, for having struck down Her messenger!"

"How do you know it is a messenger from Her?" asked one of the men. "Brarak says it was aiming the spear at you!"

"A spear with a message on it!" Taysha spoke up, holding up the leather she had removed from the spear. "The M'ka'arru said a sign would come, a message would follow the first, and now it has! You cannot doubt!"

Meanwhile, Shalun had gotten her first good look at the 'messenger'. "There is no doubt!" she proclaimed, looking up at her people. "Who else but one of the Mother's own would wear the symbols of the two Sons That Watch about her neck, and the symbols of Her great forests upon her clothes! Four days, have we waited below the source of the river, and now at last She sends us word!" As Payluna dropped to her knees beside the wounded elf, Shalun glanced at her daughter. "Examine the message, Taysha. See if you can understand what it says."

The camp became silent, broken only by the snap of flames, the sound of ripping leather and cloth, and then a cry of pain as Payluna tended the injured being. Then, finally, Taysha spoke, in a small and frightened voice.

"It is ... not like the other message, mother. It -- I think these symbols have been made with blood. And ... and I think it says ... that we are in deadly danger."

"What?! Give it here!" Taking the leather, Shalun stared at it, angling it to catch the light. The symbols were strange, but what they stood for was clear. Waterfall, river, and people. Small oblongs were arrayed in neat rows under the left side of the images; after swiftly counting the number, Shalun felt cold, to find it equaled the number of people remaining in her tribe. There were actually two sets of symbols; alike, but different. Two human stick figures stood by the river in the first one. A feathered spear pointed from the left to the right. And in the right-hand set of symbols, the waterfall was topped not with a straight line, but with a deeply curved one. The symbol for the waterfall itself was much wider, as was the river. The stick people were drawn inside the river. There were no oblongs, under the right hand side.

Drawing a deep breath, Shalun looked up. She could not understand why there should be such a disaster, but the Mother one day would make clear. "The message warns of danger! We must flee the riverside and seek higher ground, before the river floods! The message does not say how soon this shall be, so we must move now! Do not panic, but move quickly -- pack your things, and strike the tents! Go, now!"

Excited and fearful cries broke from the throng, and then it dissolved as they broke to do the M'ka'arru's bidding. Shalun looked down at the symbols again, then glanced up sharply as her daughter spoke.

"Mother ..." Taysha's face was white with fear. "My baby ..."

"We'll carry you." But Shalun suddenly felt twice her age. How much more would the Mother allow them to take, before bringing them to their new home? To have this happen now -- Mother, help my daughter! she thought in frantic, silent prayer. Folding up the leather, she turned to see how the messenger was.

Payluna's face was haunted. "If there is time, I will try to sew up the wound," she said. "But it goes deep. If she is like us, I do not see how she can live -- if she does not die of shock and blood-loss, she will die from the fever that follows such injuries."

"No." Shalun covered her eyes for a moment, struggling with the stab of grief at the thought. Lowering her hand, she looked down at the wet, pale face of the spear-bearer. Gently, she brushed the back of her fingers over the white forehead. Green eyes glanced at her -- less frightened now -- then closed in a grimace of pain. "Great Mother, what had we done?" asked Shalun, tears brimming. "What have we done?! Forgive Brarak his error in judgment -- forgive us all! If only there be some way to let this one live -- tell us what to do, and we shall do it!"

"I'll do what I can," said Payluna.

"I know you will." Shalun heaved herself to her feet, the burden of her age never heavier. "I know you will."

A ilvertree could not remember greater sheer terror, than when the woman grabbed her and pulled her down. Captured by humans! Awareness of all her kind had suffered at five-fingered hands rose in her mind as she was carried back to the fire. They could do such horrible things! Captives rarely returned, and those who did not died horribly! If only she had been sensible, and stayed in the cave! What matter if a few humans died?! High Ones help her, High Ones give her strength!

But the human holding her did no more than set her down by the fire, making no attempt to tie her up. Of course, they probably did not think that she would have the strength to try and escape. But no one approached her with weapons or things of torture, none of the faces she glimpsed had expressions of hate, though some did show fear. A second woman knelt by her, and her actions were the same as Silvertree's mother would have done, to try stopping the bleeding. Silvertree began to wonder, if maybe her guesses were truer than she hoped. Fear might have cast that spear; her own action might have been seen as a threat to the two women. If only they understood the symbols, and fled in time!

Fear edged a young woman's voice. Lifting her head, Silvertree saw the old woman take the leather. Her voice, too, held fear when she cried out, but Silvertree sensed that orders were being given. The humans broke up and fled for their tents, and she began to hope that her message was understood.

The old woman turned back and exchanged words with the human heal-crafter. Abruptly, she cried out in grief, and Silvertree saw tears. Why? Was it possible, the old human actually felt sorry, for what they had done?

As the woman stood up to walk away, Silvertree closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on healing. Reaching desperately for the core of her strength, she focussed her power on her abdomen, concentrating on the largest of the severed veins. She must stop the bleeding! But her power seemed so slow, as it began to reweave the ends together. If only she could go faster!

The sensation of magic being used, which had been tickling at the edge of her awareness since before her glide above the trees, suddenly flared. With a shocked gasp, Silvertree sat straight up, eyes wide. Concentrating, she felt the flow of magic increasing rapidly. The LakeHolder!! The elves at the LakeHolder!

With every instinct screaming, Silvertree leapt to her feet, not feeling the pain. The old woman had turned back at her gasp, and the other two were watching. "You must flee at once!" she cried, gesturing, forgetting they would not understand. The woman stared at her, baffled. "Run!" She took a leap towards the slopes, and gestured urgently. "You must go at once!"

The woman stared at her a moment longer, before comprehension began to dawn. Shaking out the leather, she pointed to the left-hand set of images. Silvertree nodded, then flung her arm towards the slope. "You must run now!"

With a cry, the old woman whirled to face the tents, shouting. The two women by the fire scrambled to their feet, the heal-crafter going to the pregnant one to offer support. A babble of confused and fearful voices rose, and the woman repeated her words. The humans began to pour out of their tents, carrying supplies, weapons, and young children. But no one made a move to run, until the old woman cried out once again.

A woman carrying a child was the first to break away. Others began to follow, scrambling up the steep, muddy embankment. Though their shouts and cries were edged with fear, they appeared unpanicky, helping each other, men swinging the smallest children to their backs. Silvertree clenched her fists, beginning to hope that they would all be safe --

A massive crack shook the air, followed by a thundering roar. Moments later, the roar redoubled. The ground began to shake. Everyone froze for a moment, and then they exploded into redoubled, and panicked, action. Screams rose as some tripped and fell in the treacherous footing, and not all of those in the lead turned to help the slower. Leaping upwards, Silvertree glided high enough to see beyond the trees at the bend in the river. Horrified, she stared at the white-foamed wall of water raging down the river, uprooted trees and bushes already in its forefront. Glancing back and forth, she tried to judge how far the humans had to run to get above the flood, and if they would have time. Most were already hidden beneath the trees; she hoped that none were foolish enough to attempt to climb them. But nearly all had made it up that first, steep slope that stood a good three elf-lengths high, and the water would probably not crest too much above that bluff. As best she could tell, they would just barely have time.

Then a motion caught her eye, and she saw the three women who had been with her at the fire. The two of them supporting the pregnant one, they were yet within the first fringe of trees about the camp, struggling on the steep, muddy slope. Suddenly, the young woman fell, doubling over and clutching her swollen belly. Horrified, Silvertree realized that she was in labor. The other women tried to carry her, but the treacherous footing and steep slopes were too much for them. Fighting their grip, the woman broke away, crying, gesturing them to go on. They refused, sliding back down to grab her arms, but a quick glimpse at the rushing wall of water told Silvertree that they would never get her up in time! They would all three be swept away!

Before she even realized it, the Healer dove. She had never lifted more than herself and one other elf. The woman was not large for her kind, but she would weigh far more than any elf. And Silvertree was injured. But those thoughts did not run through her mind. She was like that woman! she herself had gone through the effort to bring forth new life. She was one who fought death! And she could not, would not, let the most innocent of all die!

The two saw her coming, and hesitated, and then the red-haired, young woman did as well. She cried out as she saw Silvertree, shaking her head wildly, as if to tell her not to try. The elf ignored the attempted message, gliding at full speed just above the ground, then lifting upwards as she neared the woman. Without trying to slow down, hoping on momentum to help her climb, Silvertree spread her arms wide to catch the woman under the arms.

Pain slammed through her as she collided with the woman and wrapped her arms around her. But it was nothing compared to what she felt as she tried to lift. Silvertree screamed in agony, her arms threatening to lose their hold or pull out of their sockets one. High Ones! She couldn't do this, she couldn't! But she must, and would! She was life-giver, Healer! Her foe was death and she would not give in! The power, the magic, was hers to call! She would soar with this one, as she was Lrilin, she would glide!

The weight lessened as the magic within her flared at her call, enveloping her passenger. With all of the will and concentration she had learned in a lifetime of Healing, she focussed now on soaring above the near-vertical bank. The roaring of the water mingled with the pulsing of her blood, driving out all thoughts of fear and pain, leaving but the supreme awareness of self and soul, melding with a white, flaming star of power. She was Lrilin!

Nightblade stood on the LakeHolder, watching with smug satisfaction as the water roared over the deep curve. She still tingled from having been part of that massive, linked power. They had pulled rock up from the depths to widen the base and ends of the rock dam, searching and re-searching for any flaws. Then, rather than try to slowly lower the lip where the water passed over, they had focussed their attention in a curving line below it. All along that imaginary line, they had fixed their joined wills and thinned the rock, pushing from both sides, moving the rock upwards, until it shattered under the pressure. The water had burst forth in a foaming deluge, roaring down to the river below. The humans would be dead by now -- that would teach them not to encroach on the elves' domain!

Farseeker's image suddenly exploded into view. **Nightblade! Where is Silvertree?!** he demanded without preamble. **Snowleaf woke up screaming, and I cannot touch her!**

"She should be in the cave -- how should I know where she is?" Nightblade added the last with a certain flippancy that she did not feel.

**She's not there! I have searched the shore, she is nowhere to be found!**

"Then the idiot must have gone to try and warn the humans." Nightblade hesitated, then shrugged and leaped out over the waterfall.

**Where do you think you're going?!** demanded the elf's image, keeping pace with her.

"I'm going to go find my stupid sister, before she gets killed!" yelled Nightblade, letting herself drop. "While I'm doing that, you can call out every elf that can handle a weapon and get them to the bottom of the gorge! And if those five-fingers have hurt Silvertree, and are still alive, they're going to regret they were ever born!"

As the shaking finally stopped, and the thunder died to a muted roar, Shalun dared to raise her head from the ground. Trembling as much as the ground had, she looked over her shoulder. Barely two of her own lengths from her feet, rocks and shredded branches and bushes marked the highest point of the rampaging water. Remembering that moment when she had seen the brush-choked wall nearly upon her, before she had thrown herself down, terrified that she had not come far enough, the woman shuddered. She would never forget that moment ....

From nearby, Payluna gave a sob. "Oh, Great Mother, Great Mother ..." she cried softly. "So ... so horrible!"

Shalun climbed to her knees, not quite ready yet to trust her feet. "Payluna, are you all right?" she asked.

The other woman sat up, shivering. "I - I - yes." She shuddered. "And I thought the river crossing was bad."

Remembering the effort of crossing the flooded river, Shalun grimaced. They had lost a boy and older man there; the one swept away, the other drowned in a futile attempt at rescue. If they had not been given a warning, this time, no one would have survived.

Recalling the source of their survival, Shalun staggered to her feet. "Taysha, and the messenger! They were ahead of us -- Taysha!" She listened a moment, then shouted again. "Taysha! Can you hear me--answer me!"

"M-mother?" The shaky call came from upslope. Shalun ran in that direction. "Mother -- oh, mother, hurry! Please hurry!"

Following the voice of the nearly hysterical woman, Shalun charged upwards. Taysha lunged into her arms as the woman went to her knees, sobbing. "Mother, oh mother! I was so - so scared! I - I thought I was going to die, I thought I was going to die!"

"Shhh, it's all right, darling." Holding her daughter tightly, Shalun rocked her, speaking to reassure herself as much as her daughter. "It's all right. You're safe now, you're safe. My beautiful daughter, my darling. You're safe."

"She - she saved me! She picked me up, and flew! I thought we were all going to die, and she saved me!"

"I know, I know. She saved us all, darling. The Mother sent her to us, to save us all."

"And there is nothing we can do, to save her."

Shalun snapped her head up. In the silver moonlight, Payluna was kneeling by the slender form of the messenger. Looking up, the healwoman met the elder's gaze. "I do not even know if she will live to sunrise."

The silence between them was broken by a cry from Taysha, as her body writhed in a contraction. Moving to a better position to support her daughter, Shalun ordered crisply, "Go find the others, Payluna, and bring them here. We'll need fire. And we'll need to take stock of what supplies we have left, and make sure everyone is alive. Go. I will stay with Taysha and the other."

C urse her, curse her stupid, half-brained, foolish sister! Crouched on a tree-limb out of sight of the humans, Nightblade struggled to fend off the tears flowing down her cheeks. Why did she have to have a sister so, so foolish, so dumb! Nightblade wanted to scream, but had to remain silent, shaking with an anguish so deep as she had felt only once before.

She couldn't die! Silvertree was Healer, calm and measured and silver-silk smoothness and power! She was her sister! If Silvertree died, what would happen to the Isle, what would happen to her? How could she live in the Isle, when every corner would remind her of her sister, and how she had harmed her, and then run away! How could she have expected Silvertree to forgive her, when she hadn't even admitted the truth to herself? That she hadn't left just to ease Fireclay's path, but because it was easier for herself?! She hadn't wanted to face the shock and horror of the others, hadn't wanted to see the expression in her sister's green eyes! It had been easier to face the dangers of skulking around the human camps, than to stay and wait for the reaction of the elf who had given her more trust than anyone else in the world -- and the elf she had betrayed.

Silvertree, live! thought Nightblade, clinging to the branch. How can I earn your forgiveness if you die!? Oh, sister, I need you! All these years, wandering around, hating myself -- I need you to forgive me, I need you to help me forgive myself! Live for your self, your child, for the Isle, but, please, also live for me! I'll do anything if you'll live, anything. Just live -- just live!


The call was weak, but Nightblade heard. **Fireclay?!** She sent her sending star seeking outwards in unbelieving hope. **Oh, Fireclay!**

**On the ridge.** His touch was hesitant. **Along with others. You have found Silvertree?**

Nightblade bit her lip. **The humans have her.**

The other's sending flinched, wavered for a moment, then steadied. **Farseeker said you would lead the effort to free her, if she was captive. There are fifteen elves here who can fight. What should we do?**

Fifteen. Scowling, Nightblade assessed the situation below her. The humans were tightly grouped about two fires. Many appeared to have lost their weapons in the abandoned camp, and most of the younger adults were encumbered by children either in their laps, or leaning against them. Fifteen elves should be able to defeat them easily, even given that none had fought in over a human generation, and most much longer. But the problem was to get to Silvertree quickly enough to prevent a human from killing her when the attack began. **I'm coming up,** she sent, starting towards the top of the tree. **Have the fighters glide out to meet me -- but tell them to stay low!**

**But, Silvertree ... how is she?**

Adroitly avoiding the top branches, Nightblade glided into the night sky. **Silvertree,** she hesitated, then continued bluntly, **Silvertree's dying.**

Fireclay's sending snapped away with a flare of anguish, telling Nightblade what his feelings about her sister were. He'd always adored Silvertree, thought Nightblade, with just the barest touch of jealousy. Though he'd never made any effort to attract her attention, as others did. Would he ever come back to her, now? Or would he be as unforgiving as her sister?

Nightblade glided rapidly, glad that there was no more than a slight breeze. It did not take long before she sighted the others. But she was annoyed to see Fireclay, and startled to see, clinging to his back, a young girl. **Fireclay!** she sent. **What is that kid doing here?!**

**She's a Healer.**

**Now, wait a moment!** Nightblade slowed to a stop. **What makes you think she can help Silvertree?! Silvertree's dying! Some human put a spear or knife through her belly, at least a half-hand width deep! I watched a human knot the wound together, but that won't help! She got knocked out so she couldn't heal herself, and she's nearly bled to death! No child's going to be able to help her -- and you can't put a child through the sort of thing Silvertree went through, trying to heal our father, that time!**

**Do you think Silvertree's daughter would not want to try?**

**Daughter!?** Nightblade stared at her mother, whom she hadn't noticed. **Silvertree had a daughter?*

**What else is Recognition for?** asked Eveningstar drily. **Surely, you haven't forgotten everything in ten years ... now tell us what to do, to get Silvertree back.**

Nightblade glowered at her mother a moment, then expanded her thoughts to be "heard" by all. They would drop down in a tight circle, slaying those nearest the fire. Picking Silvertree up, they would fly back to the ridge, then return to finish off the humans.

**No!** Fireclay did not wait for her to finish. **You can't kill them, Nightblade! You can't!**

**We can and we will!** she retorted, exasperated at his sensitivity to killing. **It's the only way to get her back!**

**Nonsense, daughter. Silvertree risked her life to save them -- the least we can do, is not to kill first."

**But --**

Fireclay floated up to her, and wrapped his arms around her. **Please,** he sent to her in a private sending, **It is wrong to kill, when there is no need.** His gray eyes searched hers. **We'll do what you say, but not that. Not after what Silvertree has done. Please ... beloved.**

She glared at him, then abruptly broke away. **All right!** she sent angrily. **We'll do it your way -- now come on! I'll explain what to do on the way down!**

Dawn was not far away. Taysha clung to her hands as the contractions rippled down her belly. Shalun would have given all her attention to her daughter, but her gaze kept being drawn to the being nearest the fire. Wrapped in furs saved from the raging waters, the Mother's messenger was barely breathing. One life was coming, another going. It was part of Her great plan, the cycle of life and death. And yet, it wasn't right, that the moon-haired one should die, for a moment of ignorant fear! Was there nothing they could do? Great Mother, call her not back to Yourself!

"Great Mother, look!" Someone shouted, and then others cried out, looking upwards. Following their gaze, the old woman gasped, half in fear, half in awe. Dropping down from the sky were others like the messenger, hands of them. And carrying weapons, some of the likes she had never before seen. But whatever they were, they were no doubt deadly. And Shalun knew, with dreadful certainty, that this was yet another test of her people. If they failed, they would all die.

Was there a flicker of motion, seen from the corner of her eye? Not daring think what would happen if another of her people acted as Brarak had, Shalun called out, with as much calmness and strength as she could. "Everyone -- do not move! The Mother sends them -- they will not hurt us, unless we try to hurt them -- be calm, and be still!"

The slender forms fell with terrifying speed. Shalun found it difficult to take her own advice as they landed all about her. Garbed by night, lit by fire and moon, they were of magic and mystery, and Shalun knew she feared them. One landed less than an arms-length away. The old woman shrank away, though not without keeping herself between the one and her daughter. Fire glinted off blackness of hair and blade, and Shalun swallowed as she found herself pinned by the gaze of fire-colored eyes. "You! You try, kill hair-white, one! She die, you all die!"

This one understood at least some of their speech. But she -- for the fire-eyed one was such -- spoke with such hatred, that Shalun shivered more from that, than the threat. "Please, flying one, we mean your kind no harm!" she protested. "The hunter who wounded the moon-haired one saw her with the spear-thrower, and thought she meant harm to me, or my daughter. The moon-haired one saved all our lives, we grieve, that in our ignorance and fear, we did harm her!"

The strange, long, curved blade moved threateningly. "She die, you die!"

Shalun looked away. Was this the end they had travelled so long to reach? Had they failed so, in the Mother's sight, that She would gather them all back to Herself? Was all hope for this life gone?

I - I can't reach her -- she's too far away!"

One hand on her daughter's forehead, Eveningstar reached out with the other and grasped her grandchild's shoulder. "Concentrate on the injury, Snowleaf. Can you Heal it?"

The small elfin child was trembling, tears dripping down her cheeks. "I - I don't know! It's -- it's so deep -- she's lost so much blood!"

"I know you will do your best, child." The beautiful elf woman closed her eyes for a moment. "The most important thing is to stop the bleeding. You perceive the deep veins? They must be mended first. The rest can wait a little, if need be. Fireclay and I will seek to call her back. Do you understand?"

"Y-yes, grandmother-- but we've got to do it now! She's almost gone!"

"I know."

One hand clenched about the haft of her obsidian blade, Nightblade watched as her young niece went into healing trance, and as Fireclay and Eveningstar locked minds to search for Silvertree's spirit. But for one stupid moment of jealousy, she would be searching with them. Calling Silvertree, keeping her within her body. She knew Silvertree's name! But she had abused that trust, turned that knowledge against her sister, and for what? For jealousy, for resentment, that someone else should know her lifemate's name and bear his child. For that, she had committed one of the gravest wrongs possible, betrayed the deepest trust possible between elves! Now her sister was dying, and there was nothing she could do! She had no right to even think that name, she had promised herself never to think of it, or use it, ever again! And she'd never be able to return to the Isle, if Silvertree died!

Silvertree must live! Forgetting all else, Nightblade concentrated on the foursome, willing her sister to live. Each moment passed as eight, magic flaring from small hands, and locked minds calling in mingled, desperate fervor. And it wasn't enough! How many times had she been with her sister, as the Healer struggled to call someone back from near death, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not! And how many times had she helped her sister back, especially when she failed, sharing sadness, sharing why life was good! If only she dared to help -- if only she could!

Crying, Snowleaf crumpled, her immature talents drained. Nightblade ground her teeth together, fighting temptation -- it wouldn't do any good! Silvertree would never come at her call; her sister would flee from her!

Or would she? Nightblade watched the anguish building on the faces of the two that searched. They were failing. Silvertree had tried to attack her, not mentally but physically. There had been hate in her voice, in her eyes. What would make an elf want to live? What if love of, and the need of kin and mate were not enough?

Fireclay's face writhed, tears spilling from under closed lids. Eveningstar's face was more composed, but the despair was clear. Nightblade knew, as she knew her sister, that Silvertree was not answering them. Was not returning. Was too far "away" to hear, or perhaps just too unwilling to reply -- Silvertree was leaving her body, leaving her mate, her mother and her daughter behind. Leaving them with the knowledge that they had failed.

No! Dropping her sword, Nightblade threw herself down by the pale, unmoving figure, casting her thoughts outwards, into the mind she had once known almost as well as her own. The other two present protested her intrusion, but she stormed by them, evading their mental efforts to hold her back. She would call her sister back, or follow her past death itself, but she would not let Silvertree go!

he knew where she was, vaguely. Her body was fading into death. It was not frightening -- why should it be? It was only a change. A change to be fought against, as long as there were good reasons to live. But not something to fear. And she was not afraid.

But she did, perhaps, feel regretful? There were voices calling for her, wanting her to stay. They were distant, and she didn't have the strength or will to reply. She did not really want to leave them, even in flesh, but she would still be with them, in spirit. Wasn't that enough? And she could sense the other side, now; so clearly. They were waiting for her. All of her friends who had already gone. He was waiting for her. Him. White hair and golden eyes. The one who had suffered her first failure -- and bitterest, most important. And he was there. Loving her. Father?

A response came, but from an entirely different source. Brilliant energy flooded her being as another self soared into her awareness. **Curse you, sister, don't you dare go, and leave us behind! Don't you dare!**

She started, and tried to move away. **I ... know you ... stay away ... stay away ...**

**No! Curse it, sister, I'm not going to let you go! You know you don't want to die -- let me help you back!**

**No ... stay away ... Vreelar ... stay away ... **

The other came closer. **I'm not leaving, sister. Not without you. The only way you'll get rid of me, is to live. Lrilin.**

**No!** Lrilin shrieked, and tried to escape, but the other wrapped itself around her. **Let me go!**

**Never!** came the reply. **Not unless we both live! I broke my promises, I said I'd never touch your name again, but I can't let you die! Curse it, Lrilin, they need you! I need you!! Don't you understand -- I love you, I need you -- I don't want to live without you!**

Lrilin struggled, but the emotions engulfed her. She whimpered, terrified, anticipating pain, but it did not come. She resisted, clinging to the icy core of fear, but the waves that inundated every corner of her essence blazed with heat, not of hate, but of love. And need. And more -- of regret, of sorrow, and of anguish, self-loathing, despair. She could not but respond to that pain, for at the very deepest level, she was, ever and always, one who must heal. For another's anguish was her own. **Vreelar?**

The other shuddered. **Sister. Forgive me. Please don't hate me, please don't.**

Lrilin's own self quivered, as the icy fear melted. **I ... do not hate you ... sister.** Why had she feared this one? **We ... are ... sisters ... more. You are ... part of me. Vreelar.**

**Oh, Lrilin!**

They existed, entwined together, for moments free from time. Then, as from a distance, they sensed another, calling. They drifted towards it, and its cry became clearer. **Lrilin! Nightblade! Where are you?!**

**Here! Fireclay!**

**Nightblade!** The other's awareness approached. **Lrilin? Are you there? Answer me -- please!**

She knew who it was. He had come to her, called on her, as he had not done since Recognition's force had faded. **Tarmryn?**


Sudden, quivering silence and tension. The one called Tarmryn shivered, holding itself apart, yet yearning, aware of the one, aware of the other, that had learned his name. And then, he sent, in a whisper softer than any breeze, with yearning as clear as a brook, **Vreelar? You are ... Vreelar?**

Lrilin cried out in sudden hurt. Did Tarmryn care more for Vreelar than for herself? She pulled away from both, hurt and bewildered. Was she less, to him, than the other?

**No!** Terror shook him. **Lrilin -- don't go! I want you, I need you, as I want, need Vreelar! Don't leave me, don't make me choose!

**But you did not want me, after Recognition.** Lrilin cried in pain. **I wanted you, but you would not come, it took all my will and pride, not to make you come! Why did you turn away!?**

**Because Vreelar wasn't there! I couldn't join with you, not while Vreelar was away, not while you feared her, hated her!**

**But, I left so you could go to her!** protested the other. **I didn't want you torn apart, having to chose!**

**But can't you see -- I don't want to chose! Lrilin, Vreelar -- please! Do not say I must cling to one, and not the other -- I will not! I would be mates with you both -- can you not let it be?!**



Three awarenesses floated in darkness, not quite touching, one burning with desperate yearning. **I would be three,** whispered Vreelar. **I would heal the hurt between us. Lrilin? Please?**

Lrilin drifted a little, the hurt slowly fading, for how could she deny what they were, here where truth only existed? She, too, longed to heal the hurt between them, a hurt that came from being apart ...


aysha gave a growling cry as she bore down, toes digging into the birthing leather, her hands almost crushing her mother's. Shalun's own muscles tensed in remembered effort and sympathy. It seemed to go forever; then, with a shriek of pain and triumph, the young woman collapsed against her supporters. Her panting was joined by a loud, protesting wail. Catching her breath, Taysha laughed, her face running with tears and sweat. "Oh, Great Mother, I did it! What is it, mother?!" She tried to leverage herself upwards. "Oh, show me!"

"There's still the afterbirth, daughter," said Shalun, lightly pushing down. Taysha grimaced, look startled, then set her jaw as contractions rippled a final time down her belly. She grunted several times, then let her breath out in a groan. "That's done it, Taysha." Shalun eased her daughter down to a seated position. "You can rest, now."

"Not ... yet ... oof ... that's hard work ... mother, let me ...see! I want ... I want my baby!"

Chuckles rose from the gathered women, and Payluna held the child out in her hands, the umbilical neatly severed and tied off. "A fine boy, Taysha. With his mother's hair."

The red-haired woman's face fell, for just a moment. "I was hoping for a girl!" But she helped Payluna's hands guide the infant to her breast. The wails cut off as the baby began to nuzzle. Smiling, Shalun watched the wonderment cross Taysha's face as the infant found a nipple and began his first meal. "Oh, it's so ... so wonderful!" cried Taysha. Supporting the tiny baby with one hand and arm, she began to explore the newborn with her fingers. "So ... wonderful."

It was the Great Mother's miracle of birth; one Shalun never tired of seeing. But sadness nagged her. Looking up, she saw that dawn had arrived some time ago, unnoticed. Not a very long birth for a first time, as those went. And mother and child were both healthy. But, what of the messenger?

She gazed towards the other side of the fire. The strange beings had abandoned their threatening stance at some point, gathering in a tight group around the dying one. Suddenly, as she watched, the gathering dissolved, most of them leaping straight upwards, with smiles and tears on their faces, as if something of overwhelming joy had occurred. Shalun shivered. Had the impossible happened? Had the Mother granted a miracle?

The beings left five of themselves on the ground. One, dressed in flowing clothes of impossible, nighttime blue held a white-haired child in her arms; her expression hidden by the cloud of black, curling hair, but her body suggesting exhaustion. A red-haired male, kneeling, gathered the messenger -- who must surely be dead -- into his arms, and stood. The black-haired fire-eyes helped him. He carried the messenger around the fire, towards Taysha. Shalun watched them, not daring to move, not daring to guess what they were about. The male knelt, easing the messenger down next to Taysha. And, then, the messenger opened her eyes.

Shalun froze with a gasp, as she looked into those huge, impossibly-green eyes. They were the green of deep summer, of the leaves that never fell. That green. There was tiredness, in those eyes, but, much more, an overwhelming depth. Shalun shivered -- the messenger was old, old beyond knowing, and wise in her years! She was, she was -- Shalun tore her gaze away, and buried her face in her hands, unable to look any longer into those eyes. She had allowed the messenger to come to harm! She had not instructed her people well enough, they had been too afraid, the Mother had shown them more mercy than they deserved, had given a miracle they hadn't earned!

Taysha touched her arm. "Mother, it's all right! It's all right -- look!" Slowly, Shalun forced her hands down, her face up. Wonder replaced fear -- for it was all right. The messenger was smiling, touching the newborn with white, slender fingers. And crying, silver tears glistening as they slid down the pale face. She looked up, smiling radiantly. Shalun saw the joy that only a mother could have for another. The messenger was also a mother: before all the other things that made her different, she was a mother, and that made her like Taysha, like herself, the special tie that bound them all to the Great Mother Herself ... givers of life ...

ilvertree lay back, exhausted, her fingers still feeling the soft skin of the human baby. Humans were like elves in that way -- how then, could there not be some meeting ground, some way to understanding, and peaceful existence? There must be a way.

She smiled at her mates, leaning anxiously over her. **You don't have to stay here, you two. I'm all right, now.**

**Leave you alone, with the humans?** asked Nightblade. **With humans?!**

**You don't think they'll harm the one who saved them?** Silvertree gave a tiny grin as her sister's scowl. **Silly Vreelar.**

**You're the silly one, Lrilin. Risking your life for a bunch of humans.** Nightblade tried to glower, but there wasn't any force behind it. Silvertree's smile vanished.

**I had to, sister -- if we had killed these, we would be as bad as the humans who killed the Firstcomers -- if not worse.**

Nightblade opened her mouth, hesitated, then closed it, slumping against Fireclay. **I'm not going to argue, sister. Not today. Hopefully not ever again.** She felt Fireclay's hand rubbing the small of her back. High Ones, that felt so good. Wrapping her arms around his chest, she thought how long it had been. And how much longer could she wait, until Silvertree was strong enough ..

**Don't be silly, sister.** Nightblade glanced at Silvertree, who gave her a wry grin. **Isn't ten years long enough to wait, Vreelar? Besides, I thought you wanted his child.**

Nightblade felt herself blushing. **Yes, but -- Silvertree! I mean, now?**

**Do I get any say in this?** interjected Fireclay. **Lrilin, I can't leave you like this.**

Silvertree started to lift a hand; he grasped it both of his. **Tarmryn, beloved, after all that asking not to chose, you're going to say you don't want her?**

**Of course not! But ...**

**I can't, she can, and won't I be part of it, even asleep? And Eveningstar is still here, and Snowleaf, and what can you do, that they can't? Now go on, you two. I can't enjoy until you do.**

She watched them look at each other, joy rising within her to blot out pain and exhaustion. Oh, life was good without fear and anger! And to know that humans could feel more than hate and fear! That young human woman, so radiant with her joy for her newborn -- ah, what better proof that they were not unlike elves! And the old one's fear had been replaced with wonder, and a recognition of their sameness -- those who brought forth new life from within themselves. There must be a way, for humans and elves to live in peace, without fear and hatred! If only she could! Heal the sickness that spilled blood; heal the two races, and children could grow up together in love and laughter.

And never have to fear.