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Thief

Owl didn't want her to go to the human village to steal, but she ignored his unhappiness. **I have to,** she told him. **I need a deer-hide and some furs to make clothes for us, and you know I'm not a very good hunter, while you're no hunter at all.** She settled his child-like body into a crook of the tree, while his dark eyes watched her, starting to brim with tears. **Don't worry, I'll come back, promise! Just stay here and don't move!** He nodded, more silent than his namesake. Sunflower studied him, sighed, then brushed his dark hair back reassuringly. **I will come back,** she sent a second time, before starting down. She had to, she thought as she moved down. Her poor little brother needed her.

The elf was back in the dawn, hauling a good-sized leather sack. **I'm back, Owl!** she sent ahead of her. Quickly, she scrambled up to him. **It was easy!** she continued smugly. **Those humans are so careless! They had all this stuff just piled around for the taking! And not even discards -- look at this fur!** She pulled out a thick, luxurious fur, stroking it with affection. **This will keep my little brother warm!**

But Owl seemed not to share her happiness. He did not even respond with relief, as he usually did after her forays. With one small, slender hand, he touched the fur, then looked up at her with frightened eyes and mind. Sunflower frowned. **So what's wrong?** she demanded. **They won't find us -- I didn't leave a trail. And, anyway, they can't have cared very much about this stuff, if they just let it lie around outside.** He seemed not to hear her, staring down at the fur, then twisting around to face south, towards the village.

**You think they do consider this stuff important?** she asked, trying to fathom the silent elf's worry. *So what? I told you, they won't find us.**

But suddenly, Owl was off the tree limb and racing downwards. **Owl! What are you doing?! Come back here!** But he ignored her, leaping to the ground, then taking off at a run. **Owl!** Sunflower pushed the fur back into the sack, slung it over her back, and jumped after her brother. **Owl, you idiot, come back here!**

By the time she had reached the ground, he had disappeared from view. But his mind was a beacon, and she sensed that he wanted her to follow. For not the first time, she cursed the fate that had left her with a brother who could neither speak nor send. Why her, and why him!? It wasn't fair!

The sack of stolen goods bouncing on her back, Sunflower tried to catch up. But Owl was very quick when he wanted to be. At first, she thought he was heading for the village, and drove herself in a desperate effort to overhaul him. But, as her lungs began to burn, she realized that he was moving at a slant that would take him around the human-infested area. Panting, she began to fall behind the small elf, though she managed to remain close enough to catch occasional glimpses of Owl, bounding through the woods like some two-legged deer.

Increasing light from the rising sun filtered through the leaves as the chase continued. Catching her second wind, Sunflower realized that they were now almost due east of the village, and starting to curve back towards that settlement. Fear flickering upwards, Sunflower forced herself to move faster. **Owl, please, stop!** she sent, in ragged thoughts that matched her breathing. **What - do you -- think - you're doing!?**

Not answering, he burst into a small meadow, suddenly limned with sunlight. Beyond him, almost up to the trees on the other side, appeared a tall, slender being, its upper torso and head hidden by a large backpack. It couldn't be an elf! she thought, grabbing her chipped-flint knife, wishing desperately for a spear and the skill to throw it. **Owl! Don't! You'll be killed --!**

Apparently hearing something, the stranger stopped, and began to turn around. Sunflower flung herself forward. She wanted to scream, but time skewed, slowing, endless heartbeats seeming to pass, as Owl leapt towards the stranger at a dead run. The stranger, fully turned, lifted arms and caught the flying body, staggering off-balance and sitting down abruptly. Sunflower found herself stumbling, stunned surprise dragging her speed away. Elf! The stranger was an elf!

Panting, Sunflower came to a stop. Dashing sweat and blond lanks of hair of her eyes, she stared at the two elves, who were totally oblivious to her. Immediately, she shuddered, revolted. How could he stand living with that?! His face! It was horrible! The left side was a mass of furrowed scars, his mouth pulled into a permanent, one-sided sneer. The right-side was relatively unmarked, but it made the left only more horrible. Some might have seen a beauty suggested in the narrow, high-cheeked half, and mourned the loss, but Sunflower did not. She could only see the ugliness, the mutilated, twisted face that mocked her unquestioned assumption that any elf she met would perfect in every feature and form. Humans were ugly, scarred, mis-shapened. Not elves.

As if sensing her gaze, the elf looked up, the single, silver-gray eye meeting her dark-brown ones. Only for a moment did he meet her gaze, then, with a flush of blood across his high-boned cheeks, he looked down, shoved Owl away from him, and sprang to his feet. Owl stared after him, as the stranger stalked away with long, swift strides. With a cry, the boy ran after him. Catching up, he tugged on the leaf-green tunic. The stranger pulled his hand away, then shoved the boy away from him. Falling to the ground, Owl cried out again; a wordless wail of fear. Sunflower's revulsion disappeared in a flash of anger. "You can't treat my brother like that!" Shouting, she broke into a run. Darting up to him, she grabbed his arm and pulled him around. "How dare you hurt my brother?!" she demanded. "Just who do you think you are?!"

The silver eye glittered as he looked down at her, his lips drawn back in a snarl. Without replying, he jerked his arm free, then grabbed her shoulder and spun her away from him. Recovering, Sunflower whipped around to see that he had broken into a run. Flushed, fists clenched, she yelled after him, "All right, if that's the way you feel, go ahead and run! If you don't want us, then we don't want you!" Tears slid down her cheek unnoticed. "Who do you think you are -- half-face! Ugly one-eyed scarface! Who wants to be friends with an ugly old elf like you, anyway!"

He had just reached the edge of the meadow, when humans burst out of hiding. Sunflower froze with a gasp as the stranger went down with an angry cry. Shouting, two men and a woman ran towards her, spears raised. "Owl, run!" Shouting, the young elf spun around and raced towards towards the opposite side of the meadow. Owl was ahead of her, his quicker feet already increasing his lead. Terrified, Sunflower tried to run even faster. They had to get away!

A spear sliced through her side. With a scream, Sunflower stumbled and fell. Staggering to her feet, she saw Owl turning back. "No!" she screamed, hugging herself, crying with the pain. "Keep going! Don't stop!" The shouts were coming closer, and she tried to break into a run, as Owl ran towards her. "Owl, get away! High Ones, don't let them, don't let --" Something slammed home in the middle of her lower back, and she sprawled into the grass. Sobbing, she tried to get up, tried to crawl, but the pain in her back made it impossible to move. Owl appeared in front of her, and tried to pull her up, but the motion made the pain in her back explode, forcing another scream. And then the humans were on her, the woman grabbing Owl. At his screams of terror, Sunflower tried a final time to get up, reaching for her brother. But large hands grabbed her arms and twisted her around, and she lost the scrabbling fight against pain and terror, falling into darkness with the terrified awareness that she might never wake up.

His mind a chaos of screaming hurt and confusion, Catclaws did not see the humans until they sprang out at him. He knew them, but before he could say even one word, they were on him, flattening him to the ground beneath their heavier bodies. "What are you doing?!" he demanded. "I'm Catclaws! I'll -- ow --!-- let go of my hair!"

The man jerked harder on the silver mass, that was gathered through an elaborately embroidered loop of leather at the top of the elf's head. "Shut up, Catclaws. You know what we're here for."

The elf gritted his teeth, forcing himself to lay still as they pulled his backpack off, the straps cut. "I do not have the slightest idea what you are talking about, Vranak. I decide to visit your tribe for Day of Light this year, and this is how you greet me?! Has the Red Fox tribe gone mad?"

Vranak jerked on the hair again. "Don't add insults to sacrilege, scar-face. You may be a star-exile, and have powerful protectors, but not even you desecrate our altar and live!"

"What?! I've been nowhere near your altar!"

"Tell that to Kor'chak and Chagan."

Catclaws decided to save his breath as his wrists were fastened together behind his back. Though what under the two moons was going on, he didn't know. Desecrating the altar built for the midsummer festival was something he would never dream of doing -- he knew better than to be anything but respectful for the humans' beliefs, whether or not he believed them. But he had been in this area for almost five generations -- how could they possibly suspect him?! It had been six moons since his last visit. Why would they suspect him, unless ...

Pulled roughly to his feet, Catclaws craned his head to peer out at the meadow. The two strangers had been caught, he saw, and the spreading stain of red indicated that the female had been wounded. He scowled, thinking of her. It had been just like he had feared. His own kind would be revolted by his appearance. And, once they knew his identity, they would reject him, for whatever crime lay in his forgotten past that had left him isolated. The boy didn't count -- he was only a child. But the blond-haired female -- he had seen it in her face. She had been horrified, revolted. He shouldn't have treated the boy like he had, but damn her! Reacting as if he were a monster! After all of the unnumbered years, the unnumbered brushes with death, to have the first one of his kind he met to act so! What did she know?!

Kragan gave him a twisting shove, sending him down the faint trail towards the village. "Who're the newcomers, Catclaws?" he asked, almost in a conversational tone as the elf recovered his balance. "Didn't look as if you get along with them."

Catclaws ignored the question as a thought occurred to him. The female had had something draped over her back -- a sack of some kind. Was it possible that she had done the deed he was accused of? But how could they possibly mistake her for him? She was short, and curved in very femalish fashion. The only thing he could see they had in common was light-colored hair. He started to ask Kragan, then changed his mind. The answer was obvious, when he thought about it. The question was, what was he to do when they reached the village?

The village, which should have been filled with laughter and good-natured chattering, as the humans prepared to celebrate, was instead filled with a sense of outrage. Catclaws noticed the hostile, silent looks as he was led to the open, dusty center of the village, that was rimmed with half a dozen timber and hide longhouses. The three leaders of the village -- priest, headwoman and headman -- were standing in the middle. Just behind them rose the 'altar' -- a careful construction of wood and straw, covered with hides, furs, baskets, carvings, and other results of human endeavor, and towards the back, a two-human height, carved and decorated pole. Catclaws carefully observed the faces of the trio as he neared. Their expressions were grim. He had a good idea what they intended for the one that had desecrated their altar and threatened to destroy the most important occasion of the year. He had seem people killed for 'lesser' transgressions ...

"On your face, desecrator!" With a trip and shove, Kragan sent Catclaws to the ground. Unable to catch himself, the elf fell hard. Wincing, he lifted his head and turned it enough to see the two strangers as they were flung down alongside him. The female was unconscious, he noted, seeing the stain spreading through the crude bandage along her side. The boy wriggled to a sitting position, looked down at his mother -- or was it sister? -- then gave him a beseeching gaze. Catclaws looked away, bothered. It surely would not be difficult to talk himself free. But where would that leave them? He would just as soon let the female get what she deserved. Except what the humans would do would be more than she deserved. And what of the boy? He didn't understand how, but from that one first contact, he knew that the boy had suffered terrible losses within his short life; that he had suffered fear and grief too powerful for his mind to cope with. He couldn't let the boy go through more of that, if he could prevent it. By the stars he claimed to be his home, he couldn't!

"Three star-exiles?" The headwoman spoke. "What is this, Shogar? We sent you to find Catclaws, if such could be done, and bring him back to answer for his evil. You not only bring him, but two others. What happened?"

The tall human who had led the chase walked up between Catclaws and the other two before replying. Catclaws listened carefully. "We found them in the meadow east of here. Catclaws was walking towards the village when the other two ran up to him. The boy appeared to take him by surprise, knocking him down." The human described the actions of the three elves in detail. "We took this sack from the female." Glancing up, the elf saw Shogar hold out the crudely-stitched leather sack. "This other was taken from Catclaws."

"Interesting." The man in the middle of the threesome, dressed in long leathers painted with a variety of symbols, handed his staff to the headman and stepped forward. "Let me look at them." Shogar set both bags on the ground. Silently, the priest opened the sack, rummaged through it, then opened the backpack. Carefully, he pulled out the items and placed them on the ground -- all the dyed, embroidered and decorated leathers and carvings Catclaws had intended to trade with that day. Items made with skills the humans couldn't match. Emptying the pack, the priest sat back on his heels, studied the modest piles, then looked over and met Catclaws' gaze. After a moment, he stood up. "Release him," he ordered.

A murmur ran through the gathered throng. Standing up, and taking back his staff, Kor'chak thumped it against the ground. "It was not Catclaws who raided our altar in the night. Chagan, stand forth!" Catclaws could not see the human, but knew who it was -- a young man, little more than a boy. "Describe what you saw -- only what you saw. Not what you think you saw."

A thin voice answered hesitantly. "I saw a figure running from the altar, a sack against its back. The larger moon was out, casting light from behind. The figure was very slender. It had long hair, tied at the top of the head. I saw large, pointed ears. As it saw me and turned, I counted the fingers on the hand -- there were four."

"Would you say the female matches what you saw, as well as Catclaws?"

The man hesitated before replying. "I would think it was her I saw, rather than Catclaws."

"Very well. Shogar, release Catclaws."

This time, there was no objection. Catclaws was drawn to his feet, and the bonds cut. Rubbing his wrists, the elf glanced at the priest. "You are free to stay, or go, Catclaws," said the old, wizened, human, who stood a good two hands shorter than the elf. Compassion flickered across the dark, seamed face. "You may prefer to leave."

Glancing at the two strangers, Catclaws hesitated, knowing what the human was implying. The boy looked at him again, the huge, dark eyes brimming with tears. The fear and unspoken plea, made Catclaws' heart ache. Knowing he could not face himself, if he deserted the two to his fate, the elf drew a breath and straightened. Looking at the priest, he said, "Servant of J'horn, I would speak for my kin."

Kor'chak looked puzzled, as did the two behind him. "You may, of course, Catclaws. You have been a friend to our kind for many tens of years. It was only our ignorance, that another of your kind existed in these parts, that led us to suspect you. But what can you say? You know our ways. That they are of your kind, does not lessen what they did. The sacrilege to the altar must be wiped out, and that can be done only in blood and death. You cannot ask us to change our traditions."

"I do not, servant of J'horn." Catclaws drew another deep breath. "But, I do ask you: Is is sacrilege, if the theft was done in ignorance?"

The silence was complete for a moment, as Kor'chak stared at the elf, mulling over the statement. "Continue."

"I took the story of what has happened, from the boys' mind as we walked back to the village." Catclaws waited for the reaction, for he could not defend the two if his lie was disbelieved. Kor'chan's eyes widened momentarily, but the humans had long accepted that Catclaws had more than physical differences. "The boy and his sister are children of my kind, recently arrived here in exile. They came with their mother, but as they came, she was killed by a demon of the storms. Bereft of guidance, ignorant of the ways of humans and of the world, they survived as best they could, eating what they could find, and sometimes, stealing. Need for things she did not know how to make for herself drove the sister to slip into this village last night. She stole from the altar and fled, not knowing what she had done. Shortly after rejoining her brother, they sensed my presence and sought me out. They found me, and then your people came, as Shogar has described."

"Why did you run from them?" asked Kor'chak, when Catclaws paused. The elf looked down, flushing. He did not want to admit it, but had been unable to come up with a less painful explanation.

"It is ... you can see that they are comely, while I am not. When she saw me, she was revolted by my scars ... it ... it was painful, to be looked at that way, by my kind. I was hurt, angry. I ... I wanted to get away."

"I see. So, you say that she did take the gifts, stealing in ignorance that she was committing sacrilege. But what would you have us do, Catclaws? It is still sacrilege."

"Yes, servant of J'horn -- but must it be answered with their deaths?" Catclaws lifted his hands and voice, pleading now. "If a child does wrong, without fully knowing what he has done, do you punish him as you would an adult who did know? Is ignorance the same as evil intent? I do not ask that they go free, that the altar not be cleansed! They do know that it is wrong to steal -- but would any of you not steal, in like conditions, for the sake of a younger sibling, a child? What I ask is that these things be considered. And that the punishment be fit to the crime! I cannot believe that the altar demands their lives; lives that are not five tens, six tens in length, but lives intended to be ten times human lifespan, and more! I cannot believe J'horn would insist that you think only of the actions, and not the intent and knowledge behind them! I will not accept, that they must die!"

So quiet was the crowd that the echoes of his voice returned to him, as Catclaws finished speaking. As Kor'chak glanced at the headman, then turned to speak with both of his companions, the low rustle of murmured conversations began to rise. Quivering slightly, Catclaws looked down at the ground, his hands at his side, clenched. He had said all that he could, spoken with all of his heart and soul. He could not stand the thought of his kind being killed, he knew that as he had not known when he began. Even the blond female; it tore at something, deep within him, to think of her death. It was not right! Something of the way his folk were made, dying was not right! And he could not let it happen!

The conversation between the three leaders went on, but Catclaws did not even consider listening, his thoughts in too much turmoil. He knew nothing of his kind, except what he could intuit from his knowledge of self. He had no memory that began before the moment he had woken up in a human camp, his mind blank of anything except excruciating pain. The woman who had seen him falling down the cliff with the dying cat's jaws locked around his arm had rescued him, saved his life, then cared for him through all the long moons of healing, and even longer seasons as he painfully relearned to use body and mind. She had given him love, as a mother for a son; had given him speech and understanding. But she could not give him what he had wanted most, the knowledge of his kind. And when she had died, he had realized only then how different he was. For years he had searched for signs of his own people, but he had not even known what to look for. And as he had looked at himself in still waters, and the years added more traces of their passing, as he had tried to understand why he had been alone before the cat, he had become afraid. He had known that his kind would not be like him; that they would be perfect and beautiful. And that he must have been alone for a reason.

And now, they had come. He must save them from their folly, though they were strangers, and the female despised him. What did it mean? Why had they come, here, and now? Why did it have to happen this way? He didn't want them here, he wished they hadn't come!

The thumping of the priest's staff brought silence. Catclaws looked up. Kor'chan's face, framed with a neatly-trimmed white beard and shoulder-length hair, was grim and determined. The deep-set eyes were fixed on Catclaws, who tried not to flinch under their gaze. The priest brought the butt of the staff down once more. "It is J'horn's law, that a child is not punished for ignorant wrong-doing, but is sat down, and given words, that it knows what is right and what is wrong. And if payment must be made for their wrong-doing, then that payment is made by the adults responsible for them."

As if on cue, headwoman Fotana spoke, her eyes also riveted on the elf. "Catclaws, of the people who dwell beyond the stars; you claim these two beside you are children, orphaned from their own kind. Do you then, as an adult of their kind, agree that you must take the responsibility for them?"

Catclaws hesitated, dreading where the answer to that question would lead. For he could not possibly say no. "I agree."

Kor'chak raised his staff, and pointed it at the silver-haired elf. "Then listen to my words, one known as Catclaws. Though it was not intended as sacrilege, yet the theft of the altar must be paid, in blood, in suffering, and yes, if J'horn demands, in death. This night, when the altar is fired, when the gifts to J'horn are sent to him, then will you walk the fire. You will walk the fire with your life-blood flowing, and offer to His presence that which you most highly value! You will walk the fire, and if J'horn wills, you will walk out again and live. Else you will die! Since you did not yourself commit the sacrilege, you will not be forced to endure this trial. But if you falter, and refuse, then will we assume that you have lied, and that the female did know what she was doing. And they will both be bound and cast into the fire, that J'horn not turn His Face away! Now leave us, Catclaws, and prepare yourself for what must be, for on your shoulders lies their fate! Show not your face until nightfall, but show it then, for the altar hungers, and it will be fed!"

Never had a day been so confusing for Sunflower. She was a captive of the dreaded humans, yet, save for the constant escort of armed men, she could have not been treated better. She roused to find herself being cleaned from head to foot in the river, then dressed in clean leathers, worn but with bright colors and decorations that seemed too fine to be accomplished by five-fingered hands. Both cleaned and dressed, she and Owl were seated under a tree next to a dusty clearing, and given food and water. For the most part, after that, they were left alone, save for the occasionally changing guards, while activity and noise swirled around them. But during all of that, there was no sign of the strange elf.

**What do you supposed happened to him?** wondered Sunflower to her brother. **Do you suppose the stranger managed to escape? I wonder if he'll try to rescue us?** Though that seemed unlikely -- what could one elf do against an entire human village? And even if a single elf could do anything, she doubted that particular elf would even bother to try. What kind of an elf was he, anyway? How could he stand to live with his horrid features -- how could he have been so clumsy, stupid, or careless, for that to happen to him? And he must be as horrid inside as out -- look at the way he had thrown Owl away from him, and the look on his half-face, when she had accosted him! **Why did you have to go find that elf?** she asked Owl in silent thought. **He wouldn't have done anything to help us, even if the humans hadn't been around! And if you hadn't insisted on finding him, the humans wouldn't have captured us! And we wouldn't be waiting here, waiting for them to decide how they're going to kill us!**

Owl looked at her, eyes overflowing with tears. Immediately, Sunflower regretted her thoughts. **I'm sorry, Owl,** she sent contritely. Carefully not moving her torso, she put her arm around him. **I didn't mean to hurt you -- I'm just all nervous and afraid about what's going to happen to us -- it's not your fault! Don't cry, I'm sorry!**

Wriggling closer, he leaned against her, wiping his tears with the back of his hand. Sunflower held him close, her gaze wandering until it settled on a small group of human children playing. **I wish we could grow up like those children over there,** she told him wistfully. **I wish we could have grown up in a place like this -- safe, happy. Do you suppose there's anyplace in the world, where elves are like this? A place where you don't have to worry about your next meal, or constantly be watching for predators or humans? Where children can grow up, without being afraid? I wish we could find a place like that. A place that had a Healer. Maybe a Healer could tell what's wrong with you -- why you can't speak or send, why you haven't grown up. Maybe a Healer could heal what's wrong with you. And maybe there'd be somebody who liked me; somebody who would want to join me. Be my lovemate, maybe even someday, a lifemate. I wish we could be in a place, where you could grow up, be strong and courageous like father, and I could be free, and happy, and, and -- ** Abruptly, her mood changed. **Curse it, I wish we could just be free of this place! I don't want to die, Owl!** She raised a hand to hide the sudden tears. **It's been so hard, taking care of us, since father was killed, but I don't want to die!! I wish we could get away, I wish we could just get away!**

Sensing her distress, whether or not he understood the words, Owl clasped her hand between both of hers, leaning closer. He gave what comfort he could.

For Catclaws, the day was one spent in aimless wandering near the human village, fighting both fear and a bitter anger. The silver-haired elf was no stranger to pain. Indeed, he had no memories of a time without pain, with a constant ache in his once-mangled forearm, and in his groin. Countless times he had brushed close to death, yet survived, but not always without injury. Predator and storm, fires and falls, blizzards and humans; all had tried to end his life, and failed. The humans most of all. 'Raised' by the woman who had rescued him, seemingly exiled from all his kind, Catclaws could not long stand the silence of utter aloneness. And so he was driven to seek out human company, a mysterious, slender wraith wandering in and out of the evanescent stream of human existence. But it had its dangers. Come too close, become too familiar, and respect and awe could turn to jealousy and hatred, as frailties became apparent, and his long lifespan a source of envy. Fear was his constant problem when he ventured towards those who had no knowledge of him -- fear of his alieness, his differences. He had learned to approach slowly, to learn all he could in secret observation, to above all make no mistakes regarding human religion. He had learned to spin tales about himself that resonated properly to human ears, to weave a sense of mystery and power -- but not too much. Long experience had taught him many things -- but the teaching too often was painful.

On more than one occasion, the cost of a mistake, a miscalculation, meant willful subjection to what tortures human minds could devise, for demonstrating courage in the face of pain was most often their means of learning "truth." And so it was again -- but this! It was one thing to accept pain as the price of his own mistake. But to risk life and suffer the excruciating agony of fire, for another's --!

Leaping up onto a limb of a massive oak, Catclaws swiftly climbed the ancient tree, seating himself halfway up, ankles crossed beneath the bole. Sweeping his long hair to in front of him, letting it flow over his hands as they dug into the bark, the one-eyed elf cursed the yellow-haired female and her thieving ways. She should be the one to walk in the flames, not himself! Surely, she must have known that sooner or later, she would be caught, and find no mercy at human hands! Were it not for the boy, he would as soon let her suffer her fate! But how could he abandon that dark-eyed child, that child whose eyes had only tragedy in their depths, whose mind held only horror. With every instinct, that must come from his forgotten self, he wanted to protect the child, shield him from harm and fear, reach that haunted self and bring it free! He did not understand how he knew what the child had gone through, but from that one long moment of contact, he knew! Catclaws knew he had already made his decision when he had spoken up, that he could not suffer the child to die!

But it was not fair! Raising his hand to his face, the elf could feel the rough surface of his ruined side. The look that girl had given him, as she stared at his face, seemed burned into his memory. How dare she look at him like that?! That thief, that ignorant, stupid girl who went around without weapons, without means of surviving, except by preying on humans! He should have merely argued to let the boy go free, not caring what happened to her. But that would be to harm the boy, and that he couldn't do. And though it would be so easy, to slip back to his cave, pack his supplies and leave for a different region, he couldn't do it! He could not let his own kind die! But to walk in fire --!

Running his fingers through the fine, silky strands of his silver hair, Catclaws then clutched it against his face, trembling. To 'give' to J'horn his most valued thing. What human did not know what that was?! His hair, the one thing of his body which had not been changed, which had not been scarred, through all the years of his remembered existence! The silvery length -- which now flowed down to his knees -- which was the awe and admiration of nearly all who saw it. In how many tribes was it believed, that to possess a single hair, freely given, was to bring good fortune? That to be allowed to touch it, was to invoke the protection of his guardian spirits to the one who touched. And because of a thieving female, he was to sacrifice those lengths. His one vanity, his one thing of his body that was beautiful -- gone! It would regrow, but all the many years in between that he would be constantly reminded!

And the worst of it was, she would be around. For he if survived, he would have to teach her, to make sure that she learned to hunt and kill, to cure leather and make proper clothes, to make weapons from wood and bone and fine-chipped flint. She would be around, with the horror and loathing in her eyes. She would take the learning and leave, glad to be away from him. And the boy would probably learn to see him as she did, and he, too, would leave. And he would be alone, alone with his pride shorn away and so slow to return, and knowing for truth what he had always feared, that his kind must surely despise and reject him, that if they but saw him they would scorn his ugliness, and if they remembered him, they would turn away, remembering the thing for which they had rejected him. Because of her actions, and his attempt to deflect her fate, not only was he to suffer, not only was he to lose his pride, but he had lost his hope as well.

The sun was was half below the horizon. Hidden in a shadow of a longhouse, Catclaws surveyed the gathering. Most the humans were seated, save for a small group of young men dancing around the altar to the insistent beat of drums. The two kinfolk were seated under a tree, clinging to each other. The headman and headwoman were standing at one side, watching the dance. Kor'chak was not to be seen.

The faint sound of a human trying to walk silently came to Catclaws ears. Turning, he faced the priest, unsurprised. Kor'chak was not surprised either. "I knew you would return," he murmured, eyeing Catclaw's slender body. His face showed no reaction to the multitude of scars. "You have been through fire before."

"Not by choice, not like this."

"You have left your clothes."

"Next to the small cave where you go to meditate and store your secret things, beneath the star-berry bush."

There was a sharp intake of breath, and wary suspicion in the deep-set eyes. "You have not entered that cave, Catclaws." There was a dangerous edge to the human's voice. Catclaws shook his head.

"I respect your secrets, as I would hope you respect mine."

Kor'chan's body relaxed beneath the ankle-length leather cloak. "Indeed. You show wisdom."

"It is not easy to survive the years I have, the protection of the spirits, or not."

The dark eyes flicked down and up Catclaw's body again. "So one can see. Will your spirits then protect you this night?"

Catclaws gave the slightest of shrugs. "That we shall see." He had pushed the fear down as far as he could, but it was in his mind still.

"As you say." Kor'chak gave him a final look, then turned away. "Come."

They did not take a straight path to the clearing, but weaved in and out of shadows, the old priest timing his moves until they appeared to the others at the final beat of the dance. Three times, he thumped his staff against the ground, then flung his arms wide. "Sundown!" he shouted. "Give thanks to J'horn for this day!" A chorus of shouts echoed him. With a flourish, he reached inside the cloak, and removed a crude clay pot. "Skaykarn! Light the torches -- J'horn awaits our gifts!"

A young man with yellow paint striping his face ran forward and took the pot. Taking bound lengths of straw from underneath his headband, he opened the pot, blew the coal to greater redness, and carefully lit the straw. Going around the circle, he lit the five shoulder-height torches, as they stood within the burned out centers of knee-high logs. When he finished, he brought the pot back to Kor'chak. It disappeared back into the heavy cloak. Thumping the ground again, the priest cried out again.

"Many are the gifts of J'horn, praise his name! This night we chose to give our gifts back to him; give those gifts that are made of our own hands, by our own skills and doing! This night we burn the altar, that the spirit of those gifts may rise to him! But this night, we stand before him shamed! We stand before him with an altar defiled, desecrated! A thief came in the night, a child of others, and took from the altar what was given to J'horn! The thief was caught, and the gifts returned! But it is not enough! J'horn is angered, and the altar cries out for vengeance! Who will answer the altar's call, who will offer those gifts that will slake its thirst, and appease J'horn?!"

Though he had not rehearsed the ceremony with Kor'chak, Catclaws knew a cue when he heard one. Feather light, he walked forward. "I answer the call of the altar. I, exile of the stars, known among you as Catclaws, will offer the gifts to slake its thirst, and appease J'horn."

"And what are the gifts you bring, exiled wanderer from the stars?"

Catclaws slowly slid his ancient, moonsilver dagger from its sheath. The dagger, honed so often that it looked as brittle as ice, was used now only on the most special of occasions. "I offer my blood, spilled from my veins. I offer my life, if J'horn chooses, by walking the fire. And I offer what is most highly valued by me. That which is my pride and my vanity, and that which is in part my power." He hesitated, then forced his hands up, one to grasp the leather that was tightly looped about his hair; the other to wield the knife that glimmered in the sun's last dying rays. The elf closed his eyes as he cut through his shimmering pride. The ragged tags of silver hair fell about his neck and ears as he lowered his arms, gasps and cries of amazement rippling through the gathered crowd. Arms trembling, Catclaws sheathed the precious dagger, then gathered in the precious mass, folding it twice into a manageable length. Behind him Kor'chak brought the staff down, signalling the crowd to silence.

"The giver has spoken! Let the altar accept his gifts! Let J'horn be appeased, let him take the spirit of Catclaws, or let him live! Now dance the sun down, oh worshipers of J'horn! Dance that he may be pleased!"

Sunflower stared, aghast, unable to believe what she had seen, as the drums began to thump again. What sort of warped mind did that elf have?! To destroy his one decent feature!? She had spotted him walking out with an old human, and been horrified at the appearance of his body, so fully revealed, but for the brief leathers about his loins. She had a few scars herself, but his --!! The scars on his face were matched by scars on his torso -- claw-marks from shoulder to thigh. How could he have survived such a mauling?! And all the other markings on the pale skin. No wonder he lived alone, apart from all other elves! A few scars were but the inevitable part of life, with no healer around. But what elf did not treasure beauty of form? She tried to imagine caressing his body, and shuddered. The High Ones grant that she would never be so unfortunate as to Recognize him, if by some miracle she escaped this place! His inner self must surely match his outer -- what reason, what possible reason, could he have for mutilating himself, and before the humans!?

Owl let out a soft whimper. Sunflower glanced at him. His eyes were wide and bright, and one small fist was at his mouth, a sure sign of perturbation. **What's wrong?** she sent. **Surely, you're not feeling sorry for half-face?! I don't know what it is you see in him!**

He looked at her, and the young maiden picked up a sense of a kind of aching pain, dreadful fear, and despairing determination. **I don't understand you!** she sent, in exasperation. **I know we're probably going to die tonight, and you're afraid, but why are you feeling anything else? Why, oh why did our parents' deaths have to rob you of your wits?!**

The small elf turned his gaze back to the stranger. **You're surely not picking up his emotions, are you?** she demanded as the thought occurred to her. **You can't be! He's too far away -- besides, what does he have to be afraid of?**

She never would understand her little brother, Sunflower thought crossly as she stared at the stranger, seen more now in glimpses as the humans pranced around the pile of wood from which she'd stolen the furs and leathers. His blind side was to her, and he was standing perfectly still, the silver tail of hair in his hands. Two humans who were apparently leaders or something, had walked up and were apparently talking with him. Probably they were telling him how they were going to kill her and Owl. From the way he apparently liked humans, and didn't like his own kind, he'd probably help them, or at least, stand by and do nothing.

The last bit of sunlight vanished, and the dancing abruptly stopped, the dancers running back into the crowd and dropping to their knees. The drums went silent, and every human was still. Then there was a shout, and the old, white-haired human, seemingly almost from nowhere, was standing before the pile of wood with one of the torches in his hand, his body naked, covered with garish circles and stripes. He shouted again. Sunflower shrieked in surprise and terror as hands grabbed her, pulling her hands behind her back. They were going to kill her! Panicking, she struggled, but there was no way to escape the powerful, five-fingered hands which tied her hands and her feet, then dragged her forward. Biting her lip, the young elf struggled to keep from crying out from her fear, and from the pain in her bruised back and gashed side. Trembling violently, she soon found herself in a kneeling position next to the silver-eyed stranger. Owl was on the other side. Sunflower wondered sickly if they were all to be killed, or if the stranger was going to do something to them -- kill them himself, for all she knew. High Ones, why did this have to happen!? If only Owl hadn't sensed the stranger, and insisted on finding him! Why did they have to die! It wasn't fair it wasn't fair!

Ignoring the two elves beside him, Catclaws watched Kor'chak as he whirled around the altar, begging J'horn to accept the gifts. Despite his best determination, sick fear was roiling inside of him, and he could feel the sweat rolling down his back and temples. The girl had cried out when she'd been tied up. Of course she was afraid, probably imagining that any minute the humans were going to kill her. Fotana had told him, during the last dance, that if J'horn chose to take him, she was sure the tribe would adopt the 'children', and make sure they learned all that was needed. It didn't help him feel better. Damn her thievery! He didn't want to go through with this! The forest fire had been terrifying; the race to get to the river, the effort to keep in clear air, the sudden barrier he'd had to leap through, to reach his goal. The challenge when he had to face a man with torches in each of their hands. Those had been bad enough, but this! Not to fight to avoid the fire, but to walk into its heart! If only he had something he believed in, that he could pray to for strength, such as the humans had! If there were spirits that protected him, if only they could give him strength and courage now!

With a final cry and flurry of drumbeats, Kor'chak stood before the altar. "Let those honored take up the torches! Let the bearers of the fires come!" Four humans stood up and walked to the torches. The priest held his high, then flung it onto the altar. "Let the altar burn! Cast down the fire, let the spirits of the gifts be free!"

Fire flared as the four torches followed the first. Almost immediately, the altar caught, and began to billow with fire and smoke. Moments passed, as the bonfire gathered strength. Then Kor'chak turned and gestured. "Let he who has yet to give his gifts come forward! Let him come forward now, or watch those who profaned the altar be cast into the fire!"

Catclaws forced himself to walk forward until he stood directly in front of Kor'chak. With a quick move, the human pulled out the moonsilver dagger, and raised it high, grabbing Catclaw's left wrist with the other hand. "Let the altar drink your blood, Catclaws, that its vengeance be fulfilled! Let it drink deep and well!"

The razor-sharp blade slashed down across his wrist. Wincing, Catclaws set his jaw as Kor'chak grabbed his other arm and slashed that wrist as well. Trembling, he felt fresh sweat breaking out on his face as his stomach twisted in nausea. If only he could escape! If only there were someway to avoid this!

Kor'chak raised the reddened blade. "Now give your gift to J'horn, exile of the stars, and let Him chose your fate! Walk the fire, and let the altar drink your blood."

Catclaws stared at the leaping flames, and could not move. He couldn't! He couldn't walk into the fire, walk to that carved pillar! He couldn't stand the pain!

"Walk, exile, or watch the others take your place!"

The others. The boy. He mustn't fail the boy! Catclaws forced himself towards the blazing fire, trying not to think of his fear. He must save the boy -- the boy must not die! The fire began to sear his face and blind his narrowed eye. It became harder to force himself forwards, but if he did not, another would not even get a chance to survive! He must walk!

Less than a step from the flames, Catclaws stopped, shivering. The next step must be into the fire itself. He must thrust his body into the searing flames, and walk on the burning pyre. He must give himself to the agonizing fire. His hands dug into the silver hair he still held. Where was his strength and courage!? If he could not find it, they all would be lost, for how could he live with himself, if he failed to enter?

Catclaws closed his eye, swallowed, and jumped.

His feet and legs shrieked in agony. Catclaws staggered, fighting for his balance, teeth tearing through his lower lip as he fought not to scream and breath in the scorching air. His one eye barely open, he forced his legs to move forward. Once. Again. And again. He came within reach of the totem, which was flickering with fire. Grasping the end of his shorn-off hair, Catclaws lifted his arms and swirled the silver lengths about two jutting stubs. He didn't wait to watch the hair catch flame, turning to return the way he came.

A branch gave under his foot, burying his leg in the heart of the altar, up to the knee. With a cry, Catclaws pulled away, overbalanced, and fell to his hands and knees. The lightly-built, gift-covered top of the altar shifted again. Both arms were plunged full length the burning mass. Catclaws screamed in fear and pain, struggled up, and fell again. His lungs seared as he breathed in. Panicking, the elf knew he was going to die!

Staggering upwards, he fell once again, his diaphragm spasming. Arms and legs and lungs burned. His scream was half-sob. He couldn't see. He was going to die. But did it really matter? The girl didn't like him anyway, and the tribe would take care of them and teach them. What difference did it make if he lived or died? His people didn't want him, the humans saw him as anything but a friend. Who besides Shjan had ever loved him, who was there who truly needed him?

A thin screamed reached his ears -- or was it in his mind? An image of tear-stained, enormous eyes like pools of darkness, gazing in entreaty, came to him. The boy needed him. Needed him to live. Needed him to know that one could refuse death. The boy needed him.

The thought gave Catclaws strength. Somehow, he got to his feet, wavered, and stood. He couldn't see. But the altar was only so large. He need only keep walking. Catclaws took a step, trying not to cough and upset his balance. He took another. His foot sank. He staggered. Refused to fall. Took another step. Two more.

And then he was plunging down, falling forwards. His mind shrieked terror, but his hands slammed not into fire but into solid ground. He pulled his feet under him, reeled upwards, swayed forward and fell. He shook in another paroxysm of coughing. But was he far enough out of the fire to count? Opening his eye, Catclaws saw nothing. Perhaps he had done enough. But something drove him to try and stand once more. He managed, he thought, though he couldn't feel his feet. Blindly, he forced one leg to move forward, then another. His legs trembled violently, threatening to collapse. He could move no further -- it had to be enough. Trying to breathe shallowly, he struggled to get the words out. "I ... have ... walked ... the fire. I ... live. Let the .... let the children go."

He didn't know if anyone heard him, or if they were doing his bidding. He could only stand there, shaking in every muscle, struggling against the urge to cough. Were the others free? If only he could see. If only he could know.

Something seemed to touch his mind, bringing a sense of sobbing relief. Something--someone-- grasped his hand. Startled, Catclaws lost his tenuous control and fell. But strong hands caught his arms and eased his fall, letting him down to his knees. Small arms went around his neck and somebody pressed against him, shaking and crying. Blindly, Catclaws found strength to bring up an arm, and fold it around the slim body, which he knew was the boy. And a kind of peace floated into his thoughts, that went with him as he faded away. That one, at least, of his own kind wanted him.

Sunflower sat cross-legged beside the dozing Catclaws, now called Firewalker, feeling yet guilty over what had happened that night, almost two moons ago now. And over her unkind thoughts and reactions. She'd been horrified and revolted when he had walked into that bonfire, and almost scornful when he fell and screamed. It was only when the humans had suddenly released her hands and feet, freeing her; when Owl had dashed up to the shaking form, had she begun to realize, to accept what the scarred elf had done. That he had done it for their sakes, to keep the humans from doing that -- or worse, to them. He had risked his life, and she been scorning him, feeling revulsion. She had been the thief, and he had paid the price -- how could she ever make that up to him?

Firewalker began to rouse. She reluctantly looked at his face, fighting down the repugnance she yet felt. She knew it was wrong, that the outer form shouldn't matter, but she still had to fight her reactions. As he began to cough, his face twisting in pain, the young elf picked up the small, wooden bowl. That had been one of the first things the humans had tried to make clear, in those first few days -- they had wanted to learn what plants could be used to relieve the elf's suffering. At least that had been one thing she had learned from her father before his death, little as it was; she had been able to describe leaves of one plant that were used for fevers, and another that seemed to lessen pain. Both apparently used by the humans for the same reasons, they had decided to use their own healing things.

Blood filmed his lips as she slid her hand behind his head and raised it. "Drink, Firewalker," she said, using the human words, as she held the cup to his lips. For he did not seem to understand the elfin tongue. "Jasha say drink."

Struggling not to cough, he swallowed, muscles quivering with effort. Sunflower wondered how long it would take for his lungs to heal. If only there was a Healer here! His torso and face were nearly unscathed by his ordeal. But his feet and lower legs had been savagely burned, while his upper legs and arms had quickly developed masses of blisters. It would take moons for him to heal -- and a Healer could probably have taken no more than a few days.

He gave her a look as she let his head down, then looked away. He had not spoken once to her, nor given her more than the briefest of glances, and always with an expression of dislike. All right, she deserved his resentment, but couldn't he at least talk to her? She'd told him she was sorry, and grateful! The least he could do was respond!

Owl walked in past the leathers that separated the area from the rest of the longhouse, followed by the human healer. Smiling happily, he went to his knees beside Firewalker. Sunflower gritted her teeth as she watched and felt the silent communion between the two, fighting down a surge of jealousy. She ought to be happy, that he had another elf to be with, and that he was able to love someone. But she had been his only source of comfort for so long. And not only did he have Firewalker; but the entire group of humans seemed besotted with him. Owl had lost all his fear of the five-fingers; she had more than once seen him playing with human children about his size: playing, and laughing. He would sit by a human knapping flint, or scrapping hide, watching with his intent expression, as if listening and understanding every word that was said to him. It was as if he didn't need her anymore.

Jasha motioned Sunflower out of the way, then knelt and began to examine Firewalker, talking to him in a low voice. Watching, Sunflower wondered if she just shouldn't try to leave. The humans had made it clear that they were to stay, that Firewalker had 'adopted' them. That was fine for Owl, but what about her? She didn't need him to parent her, as if he could! Owl didn't need her, Firewalker disliked her, and she didn't care if the humans liked her or not. She ought to just steal a few things tonight, and sneak out!

But as Jasha left, and Sunflower resumed her seat, the young elf knew she couldn't. She couldn't leave Owl, and it wasn't right to leave Firewalker. If only she fit in somewhere.

More to fill the space between her ears, than the hope that he would listen and reply, Sunflower spoke. "I want I make you talk to me, Firewalker. Why you not know 'elf' words, our words? Why you not hear my words in mind, when I try, when I 'send'. Why you no talk to me? Is alright you not like me, hate me. My fault you walk in fire, almost die. I say sorry, thank-you. I know not enough, but how I make up to you? You not say."

There was no answer. After a while, Sunflower continued. "I not think, meet elf like you -- ugly, scars. I only know mother, father, brother. Father, mother dead. Owl, I, look long time for others. Need others. Owl not speak, not grow up. I dream, find others. Think others be pretty, no scars. I dream they have magic, like first ones. I hope find one who heals, not like human. Heal magic. I hope heal magic for Owl. So he can talk, grow up. Be strong, happy. I want to be happy, too. Make friends. Maybe find mate." She stared down at her hands, thinking about everything she'd ever dreamed of finding. "Maybe, when you not hurt no more, when you all right, we leave here. We look for others. Maybe we get lucky, find. Maybe we find healer. Healer help Owl grow, speak. Maybe healer help you. Make scars go away. Father say, healer can do. Maybe if scars go away, you not ugly."

Firewalker would have preferred to ignore the girl, but when Owl riveted his eyes on his sister, he found himself listening. He didn't care if she was sorry -- nothing she could do could make up for what he was suffering! But then she began to talk about finding others. About 'magic', a word humans often used to explain something they couldn't understand. She spoke of finding 'heal magic' to help Owl. And then she spoke of leaving, of finding those of their kind, that had this 'heal magic'. To heal Owl. To make his scars go away.

He tried to imagine what it would be, to be free of his scars, to maybe even be free of his pain. Could some one of his kind really do such a thing? If only they could! But even if they could, would they? Why would they ever want to help him, he who must be a despised exile?

"Why do you think they'd want to help me?" he asked, forgetting his resolve to not talk to the cause of his pain. "Why would any -- what did you say, elf? Why would any elf want to help me?!"

"Hunh?" Her voice was surprised. "Firewalker, why you ask, if they help you? Yes, they help! You same as me, Owl -- elf! They heal you, if can! No elf should be as you, scarred, ugly!"

"How do you know they would help me?" he demanded, not wanting to hope. "I saw your reaction when you met me! You said you've never known anyone else, besides your parents and Owl! How can you know others would help me? How do you know, they wouldn't be like you -- that they'll look at me, and say go away, we don't even want to look at you?!"

"Firewalker ... I know they help you! I ... it not right, I look at you, feel ... feel not want look again. I sorry, I look at you that way. I still feel that, a little, but I try not feel that! You save my life, you walk in fire for me and Owl! No elf say, go away, if they know what you did! They want to help you! I know! It is way!"

He had never wanted to look at her, but now, Firewalker found himself turned his head and looking. She met his gaze, tears flowing down her face, and there was no expression of revulsion or dislike. He found himself wanting to believe her. What did he know about his own kind, after all? Nothing; he had nothing but guesses: dreams, or nightmares. But did he dare hope? Did he dare believe?

Her hand reached out and touched his face, the first time she had done so without it being something Jasha told her to do. "I no think any elf say go away, Firewalker. Is not elf way. And I say them, I say how brave and strong you are. How you walk in fire, to save me and Owl. I say how you cut off hair, make gift, so humans think their god happy. And, and if they did say, Firewalker go away ... then I, Owl, go away with you. We not leave you, Firewalker! You save us -- I want us be friends? One day, maybe, you forgive, say be friends?"

Firewalker gazed at Sunflower, sensing that she meant what she said. That she would stay with him, even if others of his kind rejected him. That she wanted to be friends with him. She was sorry for the way she had looked at him, and was trying to overcome her revulsion. He wasn't sure he could forgive the stupidity and ignorance that had led to his fire-walk. Not while he still suffered the agonies of that experience. But just to have even someone of his own kind to talk with. To be with. To learn what she knew. If she was trying to fight down what she felt ... he could set aside his own hurt and resentment. To be with his own kind, even this one ...

"Sunflower ..." He whispered her name, hearing how the syllables lilt and sang. She looked at him questioningly. "Teach me ... teach me elf words." He wondered suddenly what her name meant. "Teach me ... teach me your name."

She looked surprised, then, tentatively, smiled. "A yellow flower; yellow petals, brown center." She indicated her eyes, then hair, and shrugged. "Sunflower."

He knew the flower. "What is my name ... in elf words?"

She shivered a little, the syllables she spoke then somehow filled with all the searing restlessness of flames. "Firewalker."