The campsite was yet some small distance away when the young hunter heard a chilling shriek. He froze, trying to identify the voice, and felt something whisper like a faint breeze in his soul. It was a whisper of pain, of fear, of dying --
Mother! And Aelin!
Before he realized, the dark-haired elf was running, rabbits bouncing forgotten on his back. What was wrong, he wondered, as his thoughts caught up. Why did that scream of anguish seem to echo and echo inside him, freezing his soul with fear? How could anything have happened to Maelin and his sister?! An accident, during the hunt? It did happen -- that was how Soriaythek had died, years ago. But Var was too good to let that happen! And why did he get his feeling at the same moment at the scream? His mother, his older sister --!-- something was wrong!!
He ran unseeing, not feeling the the twigs and bushes tear at his clothes and skin. No one noticed as he burst into the clearing before the mother tree. Black-haired Solarn was shaking in her sister's arms -- her voice, keening wordlessly, had been the one to scream -- as the others tried with touch and sending to comfort her. Vrayl shivered, feeling the fear in his gut churn deeper, and flicked a silent query to his best friend. Elzriian looked around, arms filled with a wailing two-year-old. Looking into the tear-drenched, deep green eyes, Vrayl felt his world rocking. There were no words between them, and yet he knew. Sayek -- Solarn's mate, Aelin's son -- he was dead! Sayek was dead!
Vrayl pulled his gaze away, wanting to shut out reality as easily as he shut his eyes. Sayek couldn't be dead! Sayek had been his teacher and mentor. He knew the ways of the world, far better than any of the Firstcomers. He couldn't have died!
"Brother!" The wailing cry broke through his thoughts. A tiny figure dashed towards him: just in time, he knelt to receive her thin arms about his neck. Haliil broke into sobs. "Father's hurt! He - he just fell over! I - I was going to ask, why Solarn was screaming, and - and he just fell! And he's hurting awful!"
No! Looking around, Vrayl located the silver-haired elf on the ground, their healer kneeling beside him. Holding onto Haliil, he lurched to his feet, then half-walked, half-ran to his father's side, once again going to his knees. Daleur's pale face was contorted with a silent scream of agony. Freeing a hand, Vrayl reached for one of his father's fists, knowing before he touched what he would learn. The bonds of mate and offspring were more than sibling and parent. Mother and daughter were dying, and the mind of the Firstcomer, more sensitive than any born-here, could not but share the agony of their fate ...
But he learned also, the why.
usk. Vrayl lowered his head over Haliil's, feeling exhausted and dull. Haliil was nearly asleep, her fists clenched on his leather tunic, not wanting to let go. Beside him, Daleur gripped his hand tightly, but no emotion flowed across that touch. The camp was silent. Waiting.
Waiting for what? the young elf wondered, a bit uneasy. Shouldn't they be preparing to defend themselves or to flee? What if Var didn't make it back? Glancing up, Vrayl watched the healer pacing back and forth. If Var -- the small tribe's leader -- was dead, surely Liria would know. She had born him a daughter. She was the most sensitive of the Firstcomers. If she was waiting, then he must be alive. But should they really wait for him, to start doing something?
The question became moot as a blood-stained figure fell out of the sky. His spear carrier empty, Var landed awkwardly, going to his knees. Crying out, Liria leapt to help him, but he was on his feet before she reached him. He let her embrace him for a moment, then thrust her away. The tangled, red-gold hair seemed to glow in the dim light, as did the icy-blue eyes. **Those ...** and there was no phrase, but rather a burst of emotions, of hate, that expressed a sense of vileness that no elvin words could encompass. **They killed them!!**
Vrayl jerked convulsively as images and feelings abruptly flooded into his mind. Distantly, he sensed Haliil giving a muffled whimper of pain and terror. But he could do nothing to help her. He could only experience the sending that was overwhelming him ...
Success, pleasure, thoughts of triumphant return. Shattering suddenly -- pain! A clumsy spear tore through his side, agony, and he dropped his load, leaping sideways and upwards. Fear, rage -- react! Grabbing one of his throwing spears from the carrier on his back, he twisted around to look. And saw horror. Ambush! Two hands of men, more, leaping out from either side. Sayek, on the ground, clutching a spear through his stomach, screaming and writhing. Aelin and Maelin, almost unseen under the heavy bodies -- unseen but not unheard! Cries of anger, of effort, changing to agony, as crude knives and clubs slammed into their flesh, and red blood flowed. White-hot, helpless fury! Throw the spears, stop the humans, kill them! Small javelins flashed downwards. More blood spurted and two humans died. But it was not enough! Weapons were gone, and he was helpless! Laughter, guttural, taunting laughter! The short-lived ones were taunting him! Fury, hatred! Almost, he dove, ready to fight them with bare hands. But another's thoughts, denying him -- **No, Var -- don't try!** Maelin -- lovemate, friend, one of the bond group shattered by the world with no name. **Get back to the others! Forget us -- save yourself! Save them! Leave us!**
No! But through blood and pain, Maelin's thoughts insisted, joined by the light, clear thoughts of her daughter. He could not throw his life away -- he must not turn away from his responsibilities to his people! Gliding higher, avoiding the spears, he could not but agree. But he could not leave! Grief, anguish, rage! He could not but watch the slow, horrible butchery. Even when they were dead, he could not depart. Until another spear flashed past, a bare finger-width from his arm, did the spell break, and the pleadings of the spirits reach him. Soaring twice the height of any tree, he headed north, waiting long past the point where any human could see him, before turning for the camp. But he saw less the trees, than the twisted, bloody bodies, until Liria's silver call brought him back, and down ...
The sending faded at last. Vrayl shook his head violently, trying to rid himself of the lingering "other". He felt sick. Beside him, Haliil was curled into a tight, little ball, whimpering. He picked her up, then forced himself to his feet, using the tree trunk for support. Her hands clutched at him, her mind reeling in shock and terror. "That wasn't necessary."
Var whipped around to face him, eyes glittering with rage. Vrayl realized he had said those words. "It wasn't necessary to what, youngster?"
His mouth dried under the impact of that gaze. Dried with fear of a something in that gaze that was more than fury. He couldn't respond. He felt a sneer added to the rage. "Well? Did you say something, little born-here?"
The mockery stung. Vrayl flushed, embarrassed, forgetting his momentary fear. Sensing anew his sister's terror increased his anger. "You didn't have to share all that with us." He met the hard gaze squarely. "And you didn't have to make the children share it, too."
"Are you trying to tell me what to do?" The unidentified spark in the blue ice grew brighter. "You? Boy?"
"Var. He is right -- you should not have shared with the children -- they are too young."
He swung around to face the Healer. Tension crackled between them, as thoughts flowed in silence, barred from the others. The leader's shoulders tightened, then, slowly, relaxed. For a moment, Vrayl thought he saw a flash of embarrassment on the Firstcomer's face. But it was gone too quickly to be sure.
With a twitch of his shoulders, and head-shake to toss his hair back, Var turned from Liria. **If we don't teach those humans to leave us alone, next time they'll be hunting for this camp. Liria will take the three children and hole up in the mother-tree. The rest of you, get your weapons -- we're going hunting!**
Vrayl felt his face blanch and his stomach twist. Hunting--for humans? He swallowed and closed his eyes. Fight the humans, try to kill them? He remembered his first hunt for large prey, and his throw that had wounded mortally, but not killed. Sayek had made him touch the deer, to feel the pain and fear. To understand why death should be given quickly. He remembered other lessons. He remembered the memories his parents had shared with him, the terror and horror of the slaughter at the Palace, and the soul-scarring efforts to survive -- efforts that required overturning the mind-wrenching recoiling against killing. Always, he had been told, killing should be done only for need, for survival. And now Var wanted them to hunt down and kill humans ... for what?
**Are you a coward, or didn't you hear me?! Get your weapons!**
The sending hurt. Vrayl's eyes flew open, and found themselves invaded by Var's merciless gaze. **Coward!** Var's thought jeered again. **Your mother and your sister dead, and you just stand there! Move!**
Someone -- Liria -- tried to pluck Haliil from his grasp. She wailed, and clung to him with all her strength. Var's gaze left him to glower at the child. Her cries cut off as her thin body jerked, then went limp. Vrayl gasped and Liria let out a cry of dismay, pulling Haliil to her. Aghast, Vrayl stared at Var: how could he even think to hurt Haliil like that, knocking her out with the very power of his mind?! Var must be ... must be ...
The thought didn't complete itself, as someone touched his arm. "Son." Vrayl turned. Daleur held out a heavy thrusting spear, a long knife, and a carrier full of javelins. The shaper's own weapons were already strapped about him. Vrayl hesitated, glancing at the edged rock, never intended for five-fingered prey.
"Father, don't you think ..." he began, then stopped, as he looked into the Firstcomer's eyes. Something inside him recoiled. His father's eyes ... there was a .... blankness, a hauntedness. They did not seem to see him, but rather ... through, past him. And there was a spark of something else, that same something in Var's gaze...
Hands trembling, Vrayl made himself take the weapons. Turning, he glanced around the clearing. Solarn was examining the blade of one spear, with an expression that was exactly like Daleur's. Morthek's face was grim, Aerva's was set, and Diirla simply looked scared. But no one looked as if they objected to Var's plan. Vrayl's sense of revulsion returned and grew. Did no one else feel that what they were going to do was wrong?
Then he saw Elzrian, standing next to the mother-tree. The green eyes noticed him, and then looked straight at him. There was no overt sending, and yet Vrayl knew what his younger friend was thinking. Don't go.
**The humans won't be expecting us,** sent Var, his thoughts as hard-edged as rock. **They'll be celebrating by the time we find their camp. We'll have the advantage of surprise -- we'll teach them that elves aren't prey for their taking. We'll show them elves can kill!**
And in the hatred and loathing that threatened to overwhelm him, Vrayl discovered a word that defined what he had been sensing. Madness. He tried to imagine thrusting his spear into a human body, of being splattered with the blood of an intelligent, aware being, and felt a deep revulsion. His mother, his sister, Sayek: they were already dead. This attack was not necessary. The elves had already changed greatly from the trusting innocents of that night of slaughter. Wanting to survive, they had learned harsh lessons -- the lessons that death and life were intertwined, that some dying, some killing, was necessary to survive. Necessary lessons. But, if they killed tonight, as Var was ordering, they would change again. And that change ...
"No." Vrayl let his weapons fall, then raised his head. Var turned around slowly. Everyone was looking at him. Var completed his turn, took note of the weapons on the ground, and glared at him. Vrayl matched his stare.
"Pick them up."
The madness was clear in the cerulean depths, as was a growing anger. **Pick them up.**
Vrayl willed himself to withstand the mental pressure. "I will not. Your plan is wrong."
Anger kindled into rage. **You dare defy me?! Pick them up!**
"No!" The young elf willed himself to ignore the growing pain. His body tensed, hands clenched with effort. "I will not take part in this madness!"
Agony lashed into his mind, as the full power of a Firstcomer was unleashed. Vrayl kept to his feet and to awareness only by sheer determination. **You dare say I am mad!? Born-here! Child! You will do what I say!!**
"No! You are mad, Var -- what is it not but madness, to kill for revenge!" Vrayl struggled to get the words out before his will and body crumpled under the assault. "To risk more lives ... for revenge ... is mad ... we're ... not killers ... we are ... elves ... I ... will ... not ... follow ... you ..."
**Then survive on your own -- if you can! I'll have no coward living with me!**
With a final thrust of sent pain, Vrayl found himself released. Helplessly, he crumpled to his elbows and knees, sweat-drenched, panting, dizzy with pain. "Take your weapons and get out of here!"
Shaking, Vrayl managed to crawl to his feet. The other elves were watching him, but no one had moved to intervene. They were confused, bewildered, but their weapons were still in their hands. If he left, they would follow Var. They would follow and become changed ... and some would die. He couldn't let that happen.
"I won't leave unless everyone says I must. Father," Vrayl turned his head to look at Daleur, speaking quickly. "Mother and Aelin are dead -- what good will killing the humans do them? You roamed the stars once, knew other forms, other lives, knew things I can't imagine. Because you are trapped here, because you must kill to live, must you learn also to kill for hate and fear? Must you learn to be like the humans themselves?" He looked at the others. "We are elves, not humans!" he cried, spreading his empty hands. "Humans kill for hate and fear! Must we become like them?! We don't have to -- we don't have to go to their village, we don't have to take revenge! We don't have to do what Var says!"
**Shut up!** Var attacked again, and this time, through a haze a pain, Vrayl saw the elder moving on a physical plane as well. The young elf felt a paralyzing fear as he suddenly realized a horror worse than elf deliberately seeking to kill human -- elf killing elf --
**Stop.** Suddenly, Daleur was there, mind and body, locking minds with his son, to protect him, and arm around his body to support him. **Stop, Var. You have gone too far. The boy is correct.**
Through his father's eyes, Vrayl saw the rage in Var's eyes flare, then fade, as the Firstcomer controlled it. **You turn against me, Daleur? For a born-here, a child?**
**He is my son,** sent Daleur. **More importantly, he is right.** Stepping away, he drew his knife, and let it drop, pulled off the spear carrier, and let it fall. **I have a daughter who needs me. It would be madness, to risk dying, for no more reason than revenge.**
**It isn't revenge!! If we don't teach them that they'll be attacked when they attack us, who knows what they'll do next!**
"It will only teach them to hate us more," said Vrayl.
Var glared, then turned his back on the youth. **Those two can do what they want -- but the rest of you will come with me!**
Diirla moved, shucking her weapons, as Daleur had done. "No, Father," she said. "Vrayl is right, and you are wrong. Morthrek -- I ask that you do not go, either." Her mate hesitated, then nodded. Var's fists clenched. Aerva said nothing, but her spears followed the others to the ground.
Solarn trembled, as the others waited on her decision. "I - I want to kill them -- they - they killed Sarek, killed him slowly -- the pain --! But - But Tinar, so, so young ... I - I can't!" Jumping into Aerva's arms, she burst into tears.
Except for her sobbing, the clearing was quiet. Var said nothing, but Vrayl could see the fine trembling in his shoulders. With a rush of comprehension, he sensed the Firstcomer's humiliation. He was only a child in the Firstcomer's eyes -- he had barely finished his growth. Who was he to say Var nay?
Liria walked down from the tree, and went to Var, placing her fingers on his temples. Shuddering, he clasped her to him.
"What should we do?"
Vrayl started. "Father?"
Daleur's face was calm, except for the sadness. "What should we do, Vrayl?" he repeated. "You are leader, now. It is for you to say."
The world shifted, and changed. But even in his shock, Vrayl buried the impulse to protest Daleur's words. Var had led them for all the time since the the fall of the Palace, refusing to answer Sefra's call. And now, the others had refused to follow Var.
By following his refusal. His example.
What should they do?
It was his decision.